The first sign that something is going to go radically wrong is Michael Pearce’s “Encounter” is a rattle. A low roar, really, which an ordinary man in an ordinary motel might not notice. But Riz Ahmed’s Malik Khan is no ordinary man – the intense actor has built his career around alarmists, aspirants and losers on a grand scale, the kind of tired-eyed guys who lie awake in bed waiting for their morning alarm – so the former Marine not only hears the hum, it becomes active immediately. With military precision he grabs a Bible from the bedside table and – flat! – crushes a wasp.
An insect looking down. Ten trillion more.
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Nobody else in the motel is on alert for an unusually aggressive infestation. Malik’s as yet unknown information says that not so long ago a small meteorite pinged the earth. This was ignored by all but a few barking dogs. But a parasite on that meteorite infected a cricket, which then infected a praying mantis, who then infected an entire forest of bastards before the news can make a bad pun on Beetlemania.
Except that this isn’t a spectacle where a terrible catastrophe is faced with worse punch lines. “Encounter,” co-written by Pearce and Joe Barton, is a disaster film on the smallest scale: Ahmed’s divorced father raises his young sons Jay and Bobby (Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada, both natural and great) from their mother (Janina Gavankar) who acts suspiciously and drives her to a safe military base before the rest of America attacks Raid.
It’s a road movie in which Malik encourages his kids to let their hair down even when he rolls up the windows. He immediately protects her innocence and sells her escape as “a crazy road trip with your cool ass father!” and stunned to learn that they prefer KPOP to heavy metal. A symptom, he says, of growing up without his bro-takular macho influence. So he uses machismo to keep them in check and promises elementary school students that he’ll treat them with candy (cute!)
Malik is the rare action dad who focuses on protecting his children’s bodies, not their souls. The only other notable is Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds, who yelled at his teenage son for trying to help strangers. Malik’s weaknesses are initially refreshing – even invigorating – in a genre defined by action fathers like The Rock who try to have it all: the strength, the jokes, the heart, the audience devotion, as if the rock were theirs Dream daddy should be, too. Ahmed makes Malik chuckle – he insists on calling his kids “buddy” – but he and Pearce want to make a realistic adventure movie, not a dizzying popcorn muncher. Even if Malik wears himself as if he could have doubled his body in “San Andreas” or “Skyscraper”, his jocky, tough guy cracks to reveal a more insecure man. Someone more human than a hero – and someone you might not want by your side unless you are sure you are fighting the same thing.
The children get hungrier. Your smile begins to dry up. And there is a perpetual threat that an ignorant cop might run over the car and disapprove of Malik’s itching to see if worms squirm in his retina.
The truth is that every movie is an act of trust, not much different from Malik, who tells the guys that they are going to play a game called “Get in the Car ASAP”. We in the audience sit in the back seat while the director takes the wheel. We believe what they tell us to believe: that rock can save the planet, that a rom-com couple will be happy, that Godzilla is 300 meters tall. That’s not bad. The films are essentially a common illusion. But in an age of frankly incredulous gullibility, where shared delusions leap from the screen to your aunt’s Facebook page, and gullibility is literally contagious, Encounter insists that skepticism is a virtue. (And that empathy is a powerful antidote.)
Unfortunately, that final message from Octavia Spencer is dragged to the climax in one of her final ungrateful helper roles, where she wears sensible shoes and tries to get everyone else in the movie to hear her advice. She’s too lively to be sidelined in those mealy little roles, and every time the film cuts away from Malik and his boys driving past the harsh desert views of cameraman Benjamin Kracun (his camera is pretty much the most stable in this one slippery film), we are reminded that the film is just above average, not brilliant. There’s a wild little detour that involves a rural militia.
Once “Encounter” reveals its destination, there aren’t many locations for the script, although there is a wild little detour to a rural militia where it becomes clear that this Ahmed acting showcase is also interested in the American psyche touring. a place where, as Malik says, “people look normal, but they’re not.”
An Amazon Studios release, Encounter, is now available in select theaters and will be streamed on Prime Video at a later date.
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