Encounter is certainly this week’s better movie that features a celestial object headed toward Earth. But that’s awfully faint praise given the woefully misbegotten and deeply disappointing direction in which director / co-writer Michael Pearce takes his second feature after 2018’s twisty and transfixing Beast.
Oscar-nominee Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal) stars as Malik Khan, a Marine Corps veteran who is introduced living in motel squalor. It’s essential to his claimed cover for a black-ops mission to stem the tide of an alien invasion — one in which “non-terrestrial microorganisms” creep into humans’ brains and seize control of their minds “like you’re a prisoner in your own body,” as Malik says. Bug spray and insect killer have only worked against these creatures for so long. They’ve started to evolve, and they’re infiltrating the highest levels of government and law enforcement, too.
It’s a deeply perceived threat that Malik wants to stop, but also one from which he wants to save his estranged young sons, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada). When Malik becomes convinced his ex-wife, Piya (Janina Gavankar of The Way Back) has been infected, he pulls Jay and Bobby along on his dangerous mission. Under pursuit by authority figures with other ideas about what’s happening, Jay also tries to reconnect with the sons he no longer sees very often.
It won’t take anyone long to guess where this combination of Bug, A Perfect World and Midnight Special is actually headed. That’s not necessarily the problem with the script by Pearce and Joe Barton (creator of the series Giri/Haji). It’s in how Encounter persists at perpetuating its genre freestyling well past its point of creative exhaustion and also betrays its own rules of perspective. You’ll notice the latter most in a scene with Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer as Hattie, Malik’s stretched-thin parole officer, where a ceiling fan’s blades rotate with an Apocalypse Now-aping helicopter whomp that makes no sense for her character at all. As in most films, Spencer’s considerable talent is wasted on a supporting role that feels like it was beefed up once she started to circle the project but given very little thought beyond added screen time. Hattie is mostly there to explain developments outright to audiences who will likely pay half-attention while putzing around on phones once this hits Amazon Prime Video on Friday.
What’s merely frustrating turns downright insulting when the film introduces a pair of peacekeeping shit-kickers who intervene in Malik’s mission — initiating a shootout that indulges in cinematic badassery when it’s no longer in good taste for the story Pearce and company are ostensibly trying to tell. It overblows audiovisual representations of post-traumatic stress disorder in ways that yearn to feel more visually exciting than emotionally harrowing. The proximity of Jay and Bobby to all of this copious and superficial violence also feels uncomfortable and, quite frankly, exploitative of both the children’s presence in the story and real-world repercussions of military PTSD. By the time a full-bore tech-fetish standoff conclusion arrives — alongside eye-rolling convenience, unbelievable developments and Malik obnoxiously screaming “COME GET IT!” — Encounter has collided with complete nonsense.