Well that was unexpected.
Director Michael Pearce takes a sci-fi action thriller road trip movie and subverts your every expectation, giving us panicky thrills of another kind.
Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) is a Marine who’s been working back to back top-secret missions, too busy saving the world to see his sons, who live with their mum and her new husband, but miss him dearly, as much as he misses them. Malik shows up unexpectedly, in the night, and coaxes his young songs Jay and Bobby into an old beater, impatient to get away but unwilling to explain the urgency to his kids. Something has happened, something more important than the mission, apparently, or rather: the mission has come home, way too close to home.
Malik’s secret: a comet has brought alien microorganisms to Earth, which use mosquitos as an effective little vector to transplant themselves into humans where they can manipulate their behaviour. Unbeknownst to the kids, though perhaps unconsciously observed, the aliens had already infected their mother, and it was only a matter of time before she turned. So Malik and Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada) are racing toward a base where they will be safe, while, in the meantime, their mother has reported them missing, and Malik is being hunted for kidnapping, not least of all by the only woman he trusts, Hattie (Octavia Spencer).
As much as Malik tries to shield his kids from the truth, they are spooked by his erratic, unexplained behaviour. They trust and love their father, but until someone else speaks publicly about this alien threat, it’s hard to be certain of his motivations, or, indeed, his mental health.
Riz Ahmed is kind of amazing in this, a chameleon who’s already changed before we even realize he’s changing. The kids are good too – Chauhan proving an able foil and partner to a much older and experienced actor, and Geddada providing that essential dose of cute-kidness, moments of levity needed between so bouts of tension and urgency. It’s an interesting way to address PTSD, and an even more interesting way to explore that tenacious bond between child and their parent, the unique ability of a kid to forgive and forget almost anything, to love despite disappointment, despite absence, without condition. There aren’t many people who could shake me awake at night and ask me to follow them without question (and my father is emphatically not one of them); the context may be unusual, but this is undoubtedly a story about love. And aliens.
Encounter is an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival 2021.
Encounter hits theatres December 3 for a limited release before heading to Amazon Prime on December 10th.