Michael Pearce is the British director who made a terrific feature debut at Toronto in 2017 with his psychological drama-thriller Beast but I have to admit I was disappointed with his new film, a starrier, bigger-budget studio picture.
Through a certain kind of narrative sleight-of-hand, Encounter first leads you into an intriguingly tense and gritty sci-fi, that title being a sneaky and none-too-subtle nudge. But then, after conceding some what’s-wrong-with-this-picture strangeness, the movie downshifts to something else, something more commonplace, but the shift itself feels anticlimactic and frustrating, considering the way we had all in good faith bought into the initial premise with all its specific jeopardy and suspense. And the procedural elements don’t feel all that convincing. But there’s certainly a fervent lead performance from Riz Ahmed, playing ex-Marine Corps veteran Malik Kahn.
Maybe nothing in the movie can live up to the inspired, wordless opening sequence: the arrival of an interplanetary invasion, or some kind of meteor shower: weird organic matter that lands silently, unnoticed, disgorging tiny malign spores. In closeup, we see what appears to be a bug landing softly on human flesh and then we descend to the inner-body level, the microscopic creature swimming through the bloodstream, feasting on what it invisibly finds. Then we see Malik (Ahmed), a tough, but troubled guy with military experience and access to military intelligence. Malik is galvanised by the top-secret material he has discovered – the truth about this alien bug invasion which to his rage the US government has covered up. The insects have now infected as much as half the population; these people are mostly asymptomatic but it is only a matter of time before there is an outbreak of horror. Malik has no choice but to rescue his two young sons Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada) from his ex-wife and her new husband before it is too late. But this means a reckoning with Malik’s government handler, Hattie – a strange and unconvincingly written role with which Octavia Spencer does her best.
It’s conceivable that a director like M Night Shyamalan would have played this idea differently, holding on more specifically to Malik’s own viewpoint, his loneliness and his family-man idealism, although in some ways it’s a relief that Pearce and his co-writer Joe Barton tip their hand when they do. But the trompe-l’oeil effect is a difficult hump to get over and what’s on the other side of it is not as interesting as the world which the movie had been born into.
There are certainly some strong scenes between Malik and his boys, and an edge-of-the-seat moment when Malik is pulled over by a traffic cop on a deserted stretch of highway at three in the morning. That is a tremendously written and tautly directed scene, with a pleasingly creepy aftermath. But the real-world consequences are not really worked into what comes afterwards, and Hattie’s relationship with the cops and federal officers is a little fanciful. It all adds up to less than we hoped, though Pearce’s direction is never less than confident.