Encounter review: Moving, unsettling sci-fi
James R | On 10, Dec 2021
Director: Michael Pearce
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Octavia Spencer, Rory Cochrane
Where to watch Encounter online in the UK: Amazon Prime
Read our interview with director Michael Pearce
“Are you telling me that if we stick by each other, we can’t get through anything?” That’s Malik (Riz Ahmed) to his sons, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada), in Encounter, a film that sees him crash back into their lives just in time to save them from an alien invasion.
Malik, a decorated marine, is one of the few in the know about the extra-terrestrial incursion, which involves a host of microorganisms that can invade a host body and control them without them realising. If that sounds a little too on-the-nose in 2021, it only give Encounter added resonance – it taps into the fear of going into a public, exposed space, such as a supermarket, where even contact with another human can have serious consequences. The atmosphere is genuinely creepy right from the opening sequence, which sees a meteorite bring the tiny beings to our planet, where they start spreading through bugs and insect – a beautifully unsettling sequence that would leave David Attenborough’s skin crawling.
But this isn’t just any old sci-fi horror: this is the sophomore feature from Beast director Michael Pearce. A whizz at blending genre and character drama, he uses the invasion flick as a metaphorical way into Malek’s relationship with his sons – and so it’s only fitting that Malik’s response to both the extra-terrestrial threat and his estranged family should be to whisk Jay and Bobby away with him, suspecting that their mother and her new partner are both infected.
Pearce makes Malik’s paranoia vividly real, but also doesn’t shy away from the PTSD this soldier has to navigate. The script, co-written with Joe Barton (Giri/Haji), is both generous and empathetic, encouraging us to identity not only with Malik but with his sons, who have as many questions and suspicions as their on-edge dad.
The resulting intensity is somewhere between Man Down and Midnight Special, grounding the otherworldly yarn in a movingly human tale. That’s thanks to a strong cast, including a compassionate supporting turn from Octavia Spencer, and two phenomenal child stars in Lucian-River Chauhan and Bobby Aditya Geddada. The latter is wide-eyed and funny, while the former is wary and alert, both of them bringing sincere family chemistry to the screen. Riz Ahmed, meanwhile, delivers a superb leading turn, which is the key to the picture’s success; he brings together what could be disparate elements with the grizzled determination of a man possessed with the idea of protecting his sons at all costs.
It’s a confident second film from Michael Pearce, who confidently paces the thriller with the effects and world-building needed to make the alien menace credible, so that even as things look increasingly inward in the second half, the stakes and scale don’t diminish. The result is a poignant, heartfelt story that, at its core, is about dealing with being apart from your family as much as sticking with them by any means possible – Encounter is a film that understands that, sometimes, a parent can feel so far away it’s like they’re on another planet.
Encounter is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.