Encounter Review: ​Riz Ahmed and child actor Lucian-River Chauhan shine in a tepid Encounter

Story: When an alien threat in the form of a comet coming to earth is sounded off,
a father tries to protect his two sons from the threat by taking them on a journey.
Review: Bugs, parasites, mass illnesses, unreliable narrator perspectives, and a
riveting performance by Riz Ahmed – Encounter makes for taut viewing. But it
also makes you question almost every twist and turn in this road trip meets sci-fi
meets family drama. Fathers will do anything for their children, in this case, sons.

The film opens with an unidentified object hitting Earth’s atmosphere, and then
launching a strange, unexplained phenomenon whereby bugs grow and multiply
and enter the bloodstream of human beings. A simple mosquito bite launches a
microcosmic bug that grows exponentially, taking control of the host and
manipulating behaviour. Basically, the person is not in control anymore.
Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed), a decorated Marine back from duty tours, starts his day
by dousing himself in bug repellent spray and checking out his eyes in the harsh
torchlight. He is checking for parasites residing in his body. He turns up at his ex-
wife’s doorstep in a farm in the middle of the night and gets his sons to leave
with him for a road trip. He doesn’t pack clothes, food, shoes, or even a
toothbrush. Mallik is armed, aggressive and a trained killer. On the way to the
‘base’, where he believes scientists and experts are working on a cure for this
parasite infestation, he encounters several people and scenarios that reiterate
his belief as the saviour of his sons. Through the eyes of Malik and his
unprepared road trip, the gorgeous American landscape contrasts with the
reality of a global pandemic that can destroy humanity and overtake the planet
Director Michael Pearce, along with co-writer Joe Barton, packs in a lot of
American ground reality to reflect just how distorted things are. There are some
3 Percenters, the anti-government American militia that protested in
Washington before the recent elections. These characters walk into the plot to
enhance the drama and add chases, including ferocious machine-gun fire in an
abandoned desert ghost township. The Rambo vibe aside, these characters,
seeking revenge and unleashing violence, have very poor aims. Then there’s a
sheriff who is infected by parasites and provides for yet another chase-worthy
situation. Everyone in the federal government is eventually looking for this
PTSD-suffering soldier of America who has faced military prison and has never
fully recovered from the trauma of war. While meant to add drama and tension,
these detours in the film’s script weaken its pace and impact, making you
wonder if this is sci-fi or is it just playing out in our protagonist’s head.

At its heart, Encounter is about a father and his sons. Here, young actor Lucian-
river Chauhan matches the compelling performance of Riz Ahmed beat by beat.
He is not precocious, never unsure, and thorough in conveying his emotions
naturally. The young child, Aditya Geddada, although less than eight years in age,
has done a commendable job in creating the impulses and confusion of a young
child. Octavia Spencer, under-used in the role of Malik’s parole officer and a true
friend to this suffering soldier, carries heft and a voice of reason in an over-
packed, rapid narrative.

The film falls short of convincing writing when in its midpoint, you end up
guessing its central twist. Predictability cuts through the otherwise pacy
storytelling. In essence, it is a family drama situated in the context of
unimaginable situations; contextualized with science fiction. But as it progresses,
the attempt to write itself out of a specific genre actually gives it an uneven
narrative structure. At no point do you empathize with the father enough to
actually care, and that surely is a shortcoming of the script.

Encounter focuses on the complex reality of American society. As Malik stumbles
and plods through ghost towns, abandoned homes and frontier towns, he
enables his underage son to drive and handle a gun. This can create room for
violent behaviour and responses in children and teenagers- a fact that the events
in this film bring to attention.

This film is worth watching for the consequences of war and traumatic stress on
people. It makes us notice a promising child actor in Lucian-River Chauhan. But
for a film with much promise, its uneven story lets you down.


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