In the riveting opening moments of Encounter, the paranoid, insect-filled, meteor-pelted world of former USMC Staff Sgt. Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) is revealed in impressive vfx detail and expository set dressing in parallel with Malik’s own status as an unreliable narrator. He awakens in a roadside motel surrounded by maps and pages that represent his amateur attempts to learn everything there is to know about neuroparasitology. On his shoulder, we see the tattooed names (in Arabic) of his children Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada), and we learn, via a letter in voiceover, that he hasn’t seen them in over two years, owing to unspecified “secret missions”. And we can plainly see that he is not being entirely forthcoming with them. Malik gives an immediate impression of a man who is quite willing to lie to his children in service of some perceived greater good, but ultimately loves them and wants what’s best for them. This duality persists and becomes increasingly important as the film goes on, because Malik’s next move is to sneak onto the farm of his ex-wife Piya (Janina Gavankar), who is remarried to a nice enough fellow by the name of Dylan (Misha Collins), in order to abscond with both kids in the middle of the night. After spiriting them from their beds and spinning a yarn that their mother and stepfather are going on a skiing vacation, he starts laying out the sort of rules that would be well at home in a cult: Don’t talk to anyone. Eat as much candy as you want and sleep whenever you want. Cover yourself in bug spray to keep the monsters at bay. Seriously, don’t talk to anyone. C’mere, I’ll teach you how to shoot my gun. Oh, and by the by, keep your fucking mouth shut (this is a hardscrabble Marine in an R-rated film who swears around his kids every bit as much as that description implies).
The tension at play in this film is not the Google-friendly spoiler question of the existence and precise nature of the alien parasites, but whether Malik really loves his kids or not, as well as whether they are truly safe with him – questions which may or may not be one and the same. Like Take Shelter before it, it doesn’t actually matter that much whether the apocalypse taking up space in your head is real. Because as his pursuers (Octavia Spencer and Rory Cochrane) soberly point out, a trained Marine who believes in mind-altering parasites can justify any amount of violence against other humans, including their immediate family or even themselves, on the basis that they have effectively been replaced by an programmed imposter. But estranged or not, abducted or not, these three are a family, and they spend every minute of this film acting like one. Ahmed, who is Pakistani-British, brings the same unassumingly tough-as-nails American accent from Sound of Metal, which works fine for the John Deere-capped jarhead that he portrays here. Chauhan and Geddada have curiously mismatched accents, with Jay sounding every bit the American-born English speaker as his father and mother, and Bobby speaking impeccable English but bearing a trace of some Indian accent. There are any number of plausible family scenarios that explain this tonal mismatch (including, I’ll admit, me just mishearing the child), but I only mention it to point out that the ethnicity of this family and how it is perceived by the strangers they encounter seem essential to the plot and vibes of this film. Because the hostility and alienation that these three are navigating doesn’t just come from their belief that they’re surrounded by mind-controlled zombies, but because – despite being as American as apple pie, they are still often treated as the other because of their race. Hostility and suspicion for strangers is thus a mutual and persistent feeling, and the racism this family experiences is subtle, but ever-present. Just another layer of the thoroughly modern paranoia on display in this film – the sort that stems from a belief that the world itself – its institutions, social contracts, and ability to perform collective actions – is coming apart at the seams. And our capacity to trust others dwindles in some sadly predictable ways.
I call this film’s paranoia modern by way of contrasting it with many previous heartland alien invasion films, which were all on some level about our fears: run-of-the-mill American xenophobia, fear of foreign invasion, Cold War anxiety about humanity’s mutual annihilation (an outcome still very much on the table!), fear of our own governments’ authoritarian tendencies, and later, somewhat perversely, nostalgia for all of the above. After briefly donning some post-9/11 imagery with Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, this genre largely retreated to comfortably generic territory – sometimes enjoyable, but not really about much of anything except blockbuster spectacle. On the smaller side, Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols‘ weakest film is probably the 2016 E.T. retread Midnight Special, and Andrew Patterson‘s quiet, small-town thriller The Vast of Night was as much about old-timey radio and telephony as it was about any specific paranormal mystery: Aliens as conceptual window dressing for a pastoral, small-town life that hardly exists anymore.
Encounter feels fresh and new, and that is an invaluable thing. It casts alien invasion as a fear that we can turn fully inward, because in a world that feels increasingly hostile and alien, the last bastion of hope may be the bonds of family, whatever that means to each of us, plus the inside of our own heads and good judgment, for whatever that’s worth. And the tension between these dueling forces, the space between hope and fear, is right where this film thrives tonally. Every moment with this family feels precarious and crisisbound, but also every bit the jovial road trip that it seems to be. Because Malik not only feels like a real father to these children, but the kids themselves are well-drawn and react in ordinary ways to the situation, alternating between excitement, cooperation, bickering, skepticism, and terror, and ultimately just wanting everything and everyone to be okay. Chauhan, who plays the 10-year-old Jay Khan, is pitch-perfect in this role, with the kind of screen presence I’ve seldom seen from an actor so young. Like Tye Sheridan before him, this boy is someone to keep an eye on. Because every bit of intensity that Ahmed can bring to this role is matched exactly as needed by the kids. Chauhan subtly sells Jay’s bitterness that his brother seems to like their stepdad, as well as his disappointment at who and what their absent father turned out to be as compared to his own memories. Jay sees Bobby following the simple, desperate childhood program of giving unconditional love to any grownup who reliably shows up and treats him decently, and sees his own disappointment in his younger brother’s future. All of this simmers in the background amid the highs and lows of this road trip, and it is essential to why I cared so much about this family.
Ultimately, the mystery at the heart of this film has only a couple of possible answers, but the film does a solid job of offering evidence in either direction as it goes on. Malik seems to go out of his way not to harm people, and mentions early on that those possessed by alien parasites are still alive and still human: Just in need of a rescue and a cure. Sometimes he resorts to violence, and sometimes he goes out of his way not to. The script even takes a few bold chances (perhaps to prod Malik’s moral lines a bit), throwing in some Three Percenter militia dudes (as loathsome an infestation of the American West as any of the other parasites in this film), portraying them as every bit the affluent, racist Large Adult Sons they are in real life, but also giving them some semi-legitimate reasons to join the chase. Every confrontation during the chase is cleverly conceived, including a showdown in a ghost town that feels straight out of a western, plus or minus a few weapons.
Ultimately, one of the most interesting things about Malik is that is that even outside moments of crisis, many of his actions place himself and the boys in physical danger. Of course, he believes they’re already in physical danger, and anything he does to serve their rescue mission is A-OK. As a consequence, we the audience are constantly forced to evaluate, from the first time he picks a fight with an armed assailant to the moment where he revs his SUV up to 100mph and pretends to sleepily drift onto the shoulder in order to give the kids a thrill, whether we – or they – should really be trusting this man’s judgment. And we also must wonder whether these innocent children will pay the price for the trust they have little choice but to place in their father. The audience is invited into this circle of trust, simply riding along with this family (and in turns, riding along with their pursuers) and hoping for the best. Riz Ahmed’s dualistic and steady-handed performance is a big part of what makes Encounter work so well as a character study, but what makes the film memorable is that it managed to do all of that while presenting such a tense and well-drawn thriller. The camera floats up and away as Malik drives on, two spotlights in the gathering darkness, carrying whatever hopes, fears, and well-rendered, macro-photographed bugs exist in his world, in search of whatever is out there.
FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10
Encounter is in theaters now, and will be available on Prime Video this Friday.