Amazon Studio’s Encounter is a powerful indictment of our country’s mental health crisis and our treatment of veterans. The sci-fi promise will lure you to the film, but Riz Ahmed’s intense portrayal will keep you watching long after the tragic truth is revealed. Director Michael Pearce, who also wrote the script with Joe Barton, is adept at this kind of psychological trickery. His allegorical thriller Beast has a similar dreamlike quality that keeps you on your heels and engaged. Barton also has a quality CV that includes episodes of AMC’s criminally underappreciated Humans, and the hotly anticipated Extinction consistently writes stories and characters that allow the actors to shine. Although the film meanders a bit in the middle, Encounter is largely successful because of compelling performances and thought-provoking themes.
There is some unnecessary clunky commentary about xenophobia and trigger happy cops and militiamen that would have been more effective had it not been so obtuse. For example, in one violent scene, Phil Collins’ Against All Odds plays incongruously in the background, perhaps reminding us that ’80s era mistakes contributed to our current problems. As much as Gen X would like to absolve ourselves from the mess, we are just as culpable as the Boomers who still cling to nostalgia like a well-worn blanket.
The heavy-handed and shoe-horned bits with a racist cop patrolling his unofficial sundown town and Ruby Ridge Sovereign Men feels more exploitive than impactful. Still, thanks to Ahmed’s deft performance, nothing ever completely teeters into echoic territory.
What happens in Encounter?
In the first half of Encounter, Malik looks to be a doting, if not particularly responsible, parent desperately trying to protect his children from a growing threat. Primarily this is due to an opening sequence montage about bugs and microscopic perils and a narrowly focused point of view. Everything from the innocent sting of a mosquito to the ominous hum of a bug catcher is designed to put us on edge and firmly in his headspace.
He furtively inspects his eyes and everyone he interacts with, searching for wriggling indications of an infection. He regularly douses himself in a fog of bug spray designed to shield him from the multitude of creepy crawlies that call Earth home. Unfortunately, his ex-wife and her new husband, played by Supernatural’s Misha Collins, are already likely infected, and Malik has no choice but to act aggressively. In the dark of night, he breaks in and kidnaps his children telling them they are embarking on a grand adventure.
His boys are equally excited by their father’s fevered jaunt across the country and terrified by his increasingly erratic behavior. At first, they join their father in concern for their mother’s health, pointing to her strange food cravings lending credence to his concerns. However, later younger boy Bobby(Aditya Geddada) lashes out at Malik because when the fun of a road trip with his father wears off, he is left scared for himself, his brother, and the parents that he is more connected to than his biological father.
Malik’s skewed view of the world focuses on his worry and heroic civic duty that has kept him away from his children. He is a war hero who gave up his life to protect our freedom. His children, especially his older boy Jay, played incredibly by young talent Lucian-River Chauhan, need to believe their father is a misunderstood hero. He is invested in the concept of his father as a protector instead of an absentee father. Despite Malik’s midnight abduction and promise of fun gunplay intermingled with jarring bursts of impatient anger, Jay wants to believe everything his father told him. As a result, we are invested in his story.
What is the twist in Encounter?
Halfway through the film, all of that is contorted; however, when Malik calls his parole officer, the consistently excellent but underused Octavia Spencer. With her signature grounded performance and maternal vibe, she is his link to reality and, as we soon discover, his only hope for a peaceful resolution. Malik has not been serving another harrowing tour in the Middle East but has been locked away in Leavenworth Penitentiary for the last two years after he was convicted of assault and dishonorably discharged.
In all likelihood, Malik had an undiagnosed mental illness caused by the stresses of war or genetic makeup that caused the assault. Most of our veterans return with some form of PTSD, and Encounter demands the viewer confront that reality. Although Malik is a deeply troubled man, he is both relatable, and his story is plausible. That should scare everyone. It isn’t a personal problem but a countrywide plague that proceeds unchecked.
Is there a microbial alien invasion?
There is no parasitic assault caused by an insectile invasion. The truth is more insidious. Instead of a microbial crisis, there is a mental health pandemic. Although we no longer treat our soldiers like pariahs, they are still mistreated. Now that mistreatment comes in the form of neglect. PTSD and undiagnosed and undertreated mental illnesses continue to affect both our military and the nation as a whole. It is a national pandemic just as dangerous as the COVID crisis. Despite Malik’s research into actual parasitic infections, the only one he faces in Encounter is fictional.
What’s even more tragic is he inherently understands that he is sick. He hallucinates several times in the film, including when he killed the older man whose boys tracked him down late in Encounter. He is visibly shaken and desperately tries to convince himself that what he is seeing isn’t real. Once things deteriorate, he tries to leave his boys in a diner as he flees across the desert for their protection. He knows his delusion is dangerous but is powerless to control it.
Jay sneaks into the car with him to protect the father that should be safeguarding him. His actions are probably the only thing that saves Malik from certain death at the end. Jay brandishes the gun as he clings to a belief that he can save his father. As the delusion breaks down, Jay steps in to protect his dad. Luckily that act doesn’t result in both his death and Maliks. Instead, Malik embraces his son and surrenders to an uncertain future. Unfortunately, our current system is ill-equipped to handle the growing tide of patients, and that future is grim for Malik and others like him.
This makes the ending of Encounter decidedly bleak. Trauma, mental illness, and xenophobia make for a messy cocktail of nihilism that shouts in whispers and gun powder retorts more than screams into the night. Nevertheless, the ending of Encounter is heartbreaking because an alien invasion is somehow preferable to what is really happening. Malik believes a plague is sweeping across the globe, and he isn’t entirely wrong. He just doesn’t have the right enemy. Encounter is in theaters and streaming right now on Amazon Prime.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.