By Benjamin Konuch
“Keeping a level head when all hell’s breaking loose, that’s a special kind of tough.”
Released by Amazon Studios earlier last month, “Encounter” is a slow-burn thriller/drama starring Riz Ahmed, Octavia Spencer and Lucian River-Chauhan. Ahmed plays Malik, an ex-marine who discovers a conspiracy about alien parasites taking control of humans. Once he finds out, he embarks with his two young sons on a journey across a country where anyone could be an enemy.
While many aspects of this film can’t be properly discussed without spoilers, I can say that the development of the central relationship between Malik and his son Jay is fascinating to watch. For this, as well as other plot details that I will explain below, I give “Encounter” a 6.5/10. There’s a lot of good to be found, but it isn’t a film for everyone.[Editor’s Note: The following section contains spoilers for “Encounter.”]
The trailers for “Encounter” highlight the science fiction side of the film, but the reality is that “Encounter” is far more than just another sci-fi flick. As Malik and his boys journey across the country in hopes of reaching a “safe base,” doubt is planted in both the boys’ and the viewers’ eyes as to whether or not this conspiracy is even real. We learn throughout the film that Malik went to prison for some kind of assault and suffers from PTSD due to the horrors he’s witnessed in war. Because of this, the credibility of Malik’s claims increasingly come into question, and eventually his eldest son starts to suspect that things are not what they seem.
This eventual questioning of Malik’s sanity is the central twist of “Encounter,” and it left me conflicted. On one hand, the twist was kept completely secret in all the trailers and promotional material, which instead highlighted the film’s science fiction sheen, making the reveal a genuine effective twist. Such a marketing strategy, however, entirely misrepresents the film. “Encounter” isn’t a science fiction alien thriller; it’s a slow-paced drama of a broken family, a loving father and the horrible effects that PTSD and psychological trauma can have on a good person who has given so much to protect his country. In the end, the movie suggests that the true parasites that invade people’s minds aren’t the extraterrestrial but the trauma and psychosis that torment and control people like Malik.
Riz Ahmed plays Malik, a broken man tormented by his false perceptions of reality.
Unfortunately for “Encounter,” the execution of the twist is its key flaw. For the first half of the film, the audience is led to believe that Malik is telling the truth about the mind-controlling parasites, but these parasites or their effects are never explicitly shown. This lack of evidence later adds important weight to the twist as his sons realize how everything fits into place at the same time as the audience. We experience the same betrayal and confusion as they do, but for that first 45 minutes or so, the film can seem rather boring. If you start the film with the understanding that Malik is delusional, it maybe wouldn’t be as dull, but if you’re under the guise that this is supposed to be a heart-pumping sci-fi thriller, you may initially be disappointed.
As a drama and a character study, “Encounter” exceeds far more often that it fails. Lucian River-Chauhan as Malik’s eldest son Jay steals the show in terms of both character development and acting. He starts out with an idealized view of his father, and as the film progresses, the audience sees that pedestal get torn down as he realizes his father may not be the hero he thought he was. Likewise, Riz Ahmed’s acting in the role of Malik is a beautifully heartbreaking performance that highlights the tragedy of how psychological trauma can cloud a good person’s view of reality. Unfortunately, Octavia Spencer is wasted in the role of Malik’s parole officer Hattie Hayes, with “Encounter” giving both the character and the actress little to work with.
The evolving dynamic between father and son is the most interesting part of “Encounter.”
Overall, the seriousness and thoughtfulness with which PTSD and psychological trauma are presented in this film remain the main reasons I enjoyed “Encounter.” I did feel somewhat betrayed by the film’s false premise, but the way that misrepresentation put me in the perspective of its characters was unlike most movies I’ve seen. Unfortunately, that novelty doesn’t make up for the fact that half of the movie happens under a false pretense that brings in audiences who may or may not like what this film actually is. Pair that with a side plot that does little to heighten the main story, as well as Octavia Spencer’s character being completely wasted, and you get a film that is a mixed bag of good and bad.
I enjoyed “Encounter,” but I know many people that wouldn’t. It isn’t for everyone, and it’s frustrating that the very nature of the film prevents you from explaining to others why that is. As I said before, I give “Encounter” a 6.5/10, and even though I did enjoy it once, I doubt that I’d ever return to it.
“Encounter” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Ben Konuch is a freshman strategic communications student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and failing horribly at wallyball with his friends.