The opening minutes of Encounter prepare you for a science-fiction adventure. A meteor hurtling through space enters the Earth’s atmosphere and casts a streak of light over a suburban American town. Like a latter-day Roy Neary, the protagonist of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, former marine Malik Khan (the ever-watchable Riz Ahmed) is on a singular mission: to take his two young sons, eight-year-old Bobby (Aditya Geddada) and ten-year-old Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) to a place of safety. Estranged from their mother (Janina Gavankar), he coaxes them from the bedroom with the promise of a road trip beginning with a game of ‘see who can run to the car the fastest’. Jay is particularly pleased to see his dad, to whom he sends his drawings. Art plays an important role in their family; Malik draws as well. Before continuing on their way, Malik insists that his two sons spray themselves with insect repellent which he uses as freely as deodorant. Malik believes that half of the population has been taken over by insects that have buried themselves deep below human skin and control their behaviour.
Insect-based science fiction is not new, with extra-terrestrials frequently depicted as having ‘bug eyes.’ Phase IV, a rare directorial outing from movie-title designer Saul Bass, imagined desert ants exhibiting a collective intelligence and waging war on humans. The Swarm and The Killer Bees showed nature’s polliniser turning against people. Unlike dogs and cats, insects are hard to anthropomorphise, although animated features such as Antz, A Bug’s Life and The Ant Bully did their best. Insects look so far from humans that they are feared. Indeed bees that release their stings are akin to suicide bombers, the action resulting in their death. In fact, this is caused by the bee trying to retrieve its stinger, amputating itself in the process.
British director Michael Pearce made an impression with his 2017 debut feature, Beast, giving star-making leading roles to Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn. His follow-up features another potentially deadly man at its centre, who has, according to his pursuers, the characteristics of a ‘family annihilator’, the type of guy who will kill his children and then turn his gun on himself.
However, while there was ambiguity about Flynn’s suspected serial killer in Beast, there is no such mystery about Malik. His paranoia is nursed by the presence of insects in the shabby motel rooms where he stays – he thumps insects pouring out of the wall with a Bible. It becomes apparent early on that Malik is no killer. Whilst he had served two years in United States Penitentiary Leavenworth – prisons in America claimed the original acronym USP before it became ‘unique selling point’ – for breaking an officer’s jaw and received a dishonourable discharge, Malik had not threatened an individual outside the battlefield. In fact, as Pearce and Ahmed show him, he is for the most part scrupulously peaceable. You sense this is because they don’t want to succumb to a cliched view of an Asian with a gun, that is, a violent extremist. Admittedly, though he does leave his ex-wife and her second husband tied up in a garage, but he only responds with violence after first being threatened. In this film, only white characters are trigger-happy.
It isn’t long before Malik’s two sons realise that there is something seriously wrong with their father, even though Malik presents their journey as an adventure and allows Bobby to have extra syrup on his pancakes. He makes good on his promise to train Jay how to shoot a gun and also teaches him to drive. As they head towards Nevada, they come across an abandoned town, though Pearce doesn’t provide any social commentary on this (unlike in Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland). The only cheap effect that Pearce employs is when he shows flashes behind the eyes of people that Malik meets, an indicator that to him they are possessed.
Encounter has more in common with plant-based science fiction films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and 2019’s Little Joe than insect-based ones. Malik’s theory doesn’t hold up when tested against actual human behaviour. What he attributes as alien manipulation is in fact the wariness of strangers. At no point do any of the characters comment on race, removing the film somewhat from reality. Although Malik’s parole officer (Octavia Spencer) is given short shrift by the all-white FBI and the lead investigating officer (Rory Cochrane) it is more due to her municipal status than her ethnic origin.
After his deserved Oscar nomination for Sound of Metal, Ahmed gives a committed, nuanced performance, once again acting with a well-practised American accent. However, for all its science-fiction trappings, Encounter follows the familiar beat-sheet of the troubled man and kids on the run road movie (see Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World). The action sequences are well-staged but there is an abiding feeling that audiences have been cheated out of a genre. Encounter starts like Species and ends as specious.
Encounter is available to watchnow on Amazon Prime!