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No need to get close to ‘Encounter’

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I’ve always loved paranoid thrillers. Movies where something sinister and paradigm-shattering is happening, but only a few people (or even just one person) know the truth? Yeah, I’m here for it.

Sure, we’re past the ‘70s-era heyday of such films, but that doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally get one now and then. And when these thrillers incorporate other genre elements, so much the better. Of course, all of this is predicated on the fact that the movie in question has to be, you know … good.

If it isn’t, well … that’s when you wind up with something like “Encounter.”

The film, directed by Michael Pearce from a script Pearce co-wrote with Joe Barton, is an attempt to recreate that paranoid thriller vibe within a science fiction framework. Now, that kind of genre melding has been done to great success in the past, but the truth is that this story never quite finds its footing, with an inconsistent connection to the relative reality of its premise that evokes more confusion than paranoia.

It’s too bad, because there does seem to be something here. And there’s a dynamite lead performance from Riz Ahmed. Unfortunately, that performance is largely wasted in service of a story that never quite adds up. One might argue that that narrative jumbling is a choice, but even if it is, it is a largely ineffectual one.

Malik (Riz Ahmed) is a former Marine currently engaged in a secret mission. He has intelligence reports that discuss an invasion of sorts – extraterrestrial bugs that arrive via meteor and work their way up the food chain in order to parasitically invade the brains of humans, taking over their bodies.

He’s also a father. He hasn’t seen his kids for some time, telling them that he’s been away on secret missions. Both Jay (Lucian-River Cauhaun) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada) miss their dad, though Bobby is a bit more amenable to overtures made by his mother Piya (Janina Gavankar) and her new beau Dylan (Misha Collins).

Neither boy is ready, however, for when Malik shows up in the dead of night, whispering for them to come with him. They speed away, with Malik initially telling the boys that this is a road trip of sorts. However, when Jay uncovers Malik’s secret dossier, he comes clean: this isn’t a road trip, but rather a rescue mission – the boys’ mother has been taken over by one of the alien parasites and Malik needs to get them to a secret military base where they will be safe.

It’s not long, however, before Jay starts to question his dad’s story. The details aren’t really adding up, and it only gets more confusing when Jay inadvertently contacts the person he believes is his dad’s mission leader, only to discover that it is actually a parole officer named Hattie (Octavia Spencer).

Is Malik really one of Earth’s last defenses against an invasive alien parasite? Or is he a man who has had a psychotic break? Either way, these kids might be in real danger – as well as the only true allies their father has.

“Encounter” has a lot of issues, but the biggest one is the lack of narrative consistency. The best paranoid thrillers force viewers to wonder what is real in the context of the story. This film starts strong in that regard, but ultimately fizzles out. It sounds counterintuitive, but the lack of contextual fracturing serves to make the story less interesting – we’re given the truth far earlier than necessary. A little more time dangling on the line would go a long way.

There’s also a general sense of disconnect between the main players here. It almost feels as though there are two or three different movies going on all at once, only to be chopped up and stitched together in a way that roughly approximates a coherent film.

It’s too bad, because the first half of this film kind of cooks. There’s a real sense of urgency to everything, with Malik’s fear and devotion to duty combining into a mania of sorts – he is quite literally a man on a mission to save his family. However, when the either/or waveform collapses, basically making clear to us the reality of the situation, it stops resonating and begins to feel perfunctory – concluding for the sake of a conclusion.

And please – don’t blame Riz Ahmed. He’s proven himself to be one hell of an actor in recent years and he keeps it up here. He exudes a sweaty, desperate energy throughout; he’s practically vibrating in spots. And he finds ways to show us cracks in the façade without spelling it out for us. Again – a good performance. The kids are fine – Cauhaun is quite good, and while Geddada is a bit much, that’s largely the fault of the script. Spencer is woefully underutilized, though the truth is that one gets the impression she was on set for three days and they did what they could. Everyone else is forgettably fine.

“Encounter” is a film that never quite hits the mark. There are some good pieces here, and as I said, the first 45 minutes or so is legitimately engaging. Unfortunately, the decisions made in the back half essentially undermine those made in the beginning, undoing most if not all of the good that had come before.

You’ll have little desire to get close to “Encounter.” If anything, you’ll want to stay far away.

[2 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 13 December 2021 08:54

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