Amazon Studios’ new sci-fi drama, Encounter, directed and co-written by Michael Pearce (Beast), hooks the viewer through eerie silence, mild disorientation and general suspense as plot points unfold through visual cues.
In the opening six minutes, Encounter moves from outside of the earth’s atmosphere to the night sky as an unknown object burns across the horizon, disappearing into a forest. The focus becomes closer: insects. An insect bite sends a monstrous looking invading cell swimming into the unknown host’s blood stream, exploding into several microscopic snakes that disperse within the body.
The scene cuts to a man, Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed), waking in a hotel room, faint police sirens in the background. He examines himself in a mirror, and the camera centers on his bloodshot eyes. “Okay, you’re good,” Malik says to himself before spraying his shirtless upper body with bug spray. There is a photo on the wall of his family. The television news displays violence. Protests. Something about a disease infecting a growing area. Malik places his ear against the wall as insects creep through the wallpaper nearby. The viewer hears buzzing that intensifies. On a table, Malik has a report about non-terrestrial microorganisms, safety protocols and a map with a home base circled. There is a handgun. The music is fast-paced, suspenseful. And it begins.
Malik reads aloud a letter to his two sons, Jay and Bobby, which provides further context: Malik, a former marine, hasn’t seen his family in two years. He is heading out on a secret mission to save the world from the micro invaders. But first, he must get his two young boys, one 10-years-old and the other younger. He checks their eyes with a keychain flashlight. The boys live with their mother, Piya (Janina Gavankar) and her new partner, Dylan, who the boys dislike.
Using mystery to draw in the audience, Pearce refuses to provide any more information than what is necessary in the first half of Encounter. There is an urge to know more. Something is wrong—very wrong, but it’s unclear exactly what that is.
The cinematography oscillates from the macro to the micro, like a bug zapper from a distance, which slowly comes closer as insects are electrified in green bursts of light. After discovering documents that his father is carrying with him, one of Malik’s sons asks why he’s carrying around pictures of monsters. “They’re not monsters,” says Malik. “They’re parasites.”
As the stakes intensify, a pinnacle point-of-conflict occurs 20 minutes in, and the pieces seem to come together, at least in the mind of Malik. Octavia Spencer plays Hattie Hayes, the only person Malik believes he can trust, but also his parole officer. As Hayes is debriefed by the FBI (Malik has, after all, kidnapped his children), Malik’s character is further fleshed out: he did 10 tours in the military and was court-martialed for beating up his captain, which put him in prison for two years.
In the kitchen of Piya’s house, where the two boys were taken from, FBI Agent Shepard West (Rory Cochrane) says, “If we don’t stop Malik, he’s going to execute those boys. And then he’s going to turn the gun on himself.” What is the truth? Are there extraterrestrial microorganisms invading half of the human population, altering their behaviors? Or is Malik a “family annihilator” as West suggests? Both, at this point, seem equally possible.
As the FBI debriefs their unit, West warns that Malik is “a desperate man and he is willing to take desperate measures. And he can turn on them at any moment.” Meanwhile, Malik teaches his sons to shoot guns in the desert, and they go on mock attacks with sticks, and swim in a lake.
In one scene, Malik and his sons have a bonfire. The boys ask if he still loves their mother, and he begins to tell the story of how they met. And then he points to meteors he sees in the sky. The boys, however, can’t see them, even though Malik says there must be 100 of them. “It’s beautiful,” Malik says. But the audience, like the boys, doesn’t see anything.
Hattie meets Raul (Antonio Jaramillo), a former marine friend of Malik’s. He says that Malik knew how to turn it on and off, and that when he assaulted the captain, it was totally out of character. But they had been in three firefights, it was 120 degrees, and they were “getting eaten alive by bugs.” Raul takes out an envelope with hundreds of letters from Malik that he had received a year ago. They are filled with disturbing drawings, many of which are drawings of bugs.
As much as director and co-writer Michael Pearce seems to want Encounter to be a story about fathers and sons, it ends up departing from the somewhat poignant moments of Malik with his sons driving through the desert, talking of the boys’ mother. Through his delusions, Malik attempts to get his children to understand the complexities of an adult world that, ironically enough, Malik forces them to enter in a way that no boy should. Truth is elusive, of course, and up until the end of the film, the viewer can’t be sure about what is real: extraterrestrial micro-organisms invading the world or a disturbed man suffering the ramifications of war.
The acting here is top level, but unfortunately it doesn’t overcome the unraveling of the plot. Encounter steps into the ridiculous in the closing 30 minutes. Two civilians clad in partial military gear pin down Malik and his sons. It seems there is a political statement being made by Pearce, but it’s so absurd that the whole film leaps off the deep end, staying there until the closing credits. It’s unfortunate, too, because this is a film begging to be liked.