Hannah Strong


Encounter – first look review

Riz Ahmed is a father on a mission to save his sons from an extraterrestrial threat in Michael Pearce’s complex sci-fi drama.

A film I find myself thinking about a lot is Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, in which Michael Shannon plays a father plagued by apocalyptic visions which lead him to construct a large bunker beneath their property in Ohio. The question hangs over the film as to whether Curtis’ premonitions are real or a symptom of mental illness; it’s a beautiful, haunting end-of-days drama that regularly springs to mind whenever I have a nightmare or see a particularly overcast sky.

Watching Michael Pearce’s second feature Encounter, I was reminded of Nichols’ work – unfortunately because it’s a better film which deals with similar subject matter.

Riz Ahmed plays ex-marine Malick Kahn, who appears to be on some sort of covert mission concerning extra-terrestrial parasites that are invading the world via swarms of insects. He travels to the home of his ex-wife Piya (Janina Gavankar) and her partner Dylan (Misha Collins) to rescue his young sons, Bobby (Aditya Geddada) and Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan), and the trio set off on a road trip to a base Malick believes should provide safety for them.

But not everything is as it seems. Violent run-ins on their journey lead 10-year-old Jay to question his father’s story, and it soon becomes apparent the threat may be closer to home than any of them want to admit. Touching on PTSD and undiagnosed mental illness among soldiers returning from war, Encounter has an interesting premise, but pacing issues result in an overlong feeling, and the film rehashes worrying tropes about the potential danger people with mental illnesses pose to others.

Time and time again we see schizophrenia used as a plot device in films, usually painting people with the condition as unstable and dangerous to those around them. Encounter sadly typifies this stereotype, as law enforcement become convinced that Malick is a “family annihilator”. The film becomes so concerned with the action (and shoot outs) it fails to really challenge this preconception, and the sci-fi plot is dropped entirely once Malick’s psychosis is revealed, leading to a lack of ambiguity which works to the film’s detriment.

While Ahmed gives a characteristically strong performance, the real stars are young Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada who play his sons. They have a charming screen presence and wonderful rapport with Ahmed, and really are the film’s saving grace among a plot that is at best ill-advised, at worst offensive to people living with a mental illness. It’s a shame considering how strong Pearce’s debut Beast was, which felt like a more nuanced approach to mental instability.

Published 13 Sep 2021

Tags: Encounter Riz Ahmed Toronto Film Festival

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