On paper, the plot of Michael Pearce’s sci-fi thriller Encounter seems somewhat ill-conceived, but on-screen Pearce has crafted a magnificent piece of cinema.
A former marine Malik (Riz Ahmed) takes his two young sons (Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada) on a road trip to protect them from an alien threat that only he is aware of. As the trio sets out on an impromptu adventure, both boys are forced to grow up and see their father for who he really is.
Encounter is a Heartbreaking Twist on the Sci-Fi Thriller Genre
Encounter opens on Malik, holed up in a motel room, plotting his next move, and researching some sort of non-terrestrial microorganism. As he packs, bugs start to crawl through the wallpaper of the room, prompting him to spray it down with bug spray.
Elsewhere, his son Joy is at home, coloring pictures of people getting taken up by aliens, caught in the bright ray of light of the saucer. Bugs appear here too, thrashing against the window and biting his mother Piya (Janina Gavankar). Pearce lays the groundwork for what audiences might expect from a Signs-like sci-fi feature, but Encounter is something far more nuanced than that.
In the dead of night, Malik shows up at the farmhouse they live in with their mother and step-father Dylan (Misha Collins). He tells the boys that Piya and Dylan are headed out on a ski trip so he gets them for the weekend to go on a special trip. Neither boy questions this, both far too excited to see their father who has, apparently, been away for a while.
Riz Ahmed gives an incredible, heart-wrenching performance that leaves you feeling completely wrung out by the end, but the true star of Encounter is Lucian-River Mirage Chauhan who does so much heavy, emotional lifting that carries the tragedy of the film. Watching the way that Chauhan grapples with the extreme situations that Jay finds himself in is what sells this film for what it is.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the film, because Pearce has created something truly magnificent with it, but Encounter does explore some incredibly heavy topics. The plot relies heavily on the traumas of PTSD in service members, intermixed with conspiracy theories and the deep divides felt in this country in recent years. While Encounter was written prior to 2018, it felt particularly relevant in light of the recent real-life case that saw a Californian father kill his two young children because he believed they had “serpent DNA” in them.
The sound department deserves a resounding round of applause for the incredibly awe-inspiring sound design. So much of the visceral, paranoia that fuels the film comes from the unsettling sounds that Malik hears. The echoes of battlefields, the buzz and hum of bugs, and the ominous foreboding that seems to follow him everywhere.
Encounter is a raw, emotional journey that is a captivating twist on the genre. It entirely flips the script on what one expects from a science fiction thriller. Michael Pearce is a truly inspired director who brings imagery and themes full circle, time and time again within the film. In particular, the subtle nod to Jay’s art comes into play with the final shot of the film was just brilliant.
Amazon Studios is set to release Encounter on Prime Video on December 10th following a limited theatrical release on December 3rd. The film had its world premiere at Telluride Film Festival, before receiving its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Check out our full coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.