Even though the sub-genre seems easy, good road-trip movies are hard to come by. Especially after the process of shooting films has been hampered by the seemingly unending COVID-19 pandemic. Still, we got The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021), which saw a family going across the country to stop a robot apocalypse, with the focus being on the father’s relationship with his eldest daughter. Nayattu (2021) shows three cops going on the run. Hence, road-trip. Then there’s The Green Knight (2021). Is it a road-trip movie? It does fall into the knight’s quest sub-category. But aren’t all quests essentially road trips? Well, while you think about that, here’s another quality entry to that small but qualitatively awesome roster: Encounter (2021).
Directed by Michael Pearce and written by Pearce and Joe Barton, Encounter follows Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed), a Marine Corps veteran who is convinced that the world has been invaded by aliens. And they’re spreading via insects, inhabiting the minds of people and making them their slaves. You know, just like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). He is a divorcee. But he has a somewhat solid relationship with his two sons, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada). So, he makes it his life’s mission to take the boys to safety and far away from this alien threat. However, after a particularly nasty encounter with a police officer, the movie starts to hint at the fact that Malik’s worldview is probably not as clear as it seems.
The two things about Encounter that you will notice straight off the bat is that it looks and sounds like a million bucks. The opening sequence itself leading to the title reveal is fantastic. It shows a meteor piercing through the earth’s atmosphere and populating the air with some kind of spores. Those spores are then consumed by insects. And then the concoction of the spores and whatever is inside the insect is then passed onto the humans, depicted via a hyper close-up of a mosquito piercing the skin of a human being. Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun continues this style of visual storytelling throughout the movie, alternating between extreme wide shots and extreme close-ups to give a faux sense of magnitude to Malik’s journey. And these shots are often jarringly stitched together by editor Maya Maffioli, with sound designer Paul Davies and composer Jed Kurzel’s sonic cues adding to the confusion, to mirror Malik’s devolving state of mind.
But why is Malik’s mind devolving? Why is his perspective so discombobulated? What is this road trip all about? Well, without giving away too much, Malik is essentially haunted by a series of very specific events from his time as a soldier. He has experienced things that no human being should see or even hear about, thereby pushing him into this heightened state of paranoia. And somewhere deep down within him, Malik knows that things are only going to get worse and he must use this one chance he has to rekindle his bond with his sons. The sci-fi aspect of Encounter takes a major chunk of the spotlight in the first act of the movie. However, as soon as the second act begins, it practically becomes a backdrop for this tragic father-son story. The only problem is that in their attempt to maintain the ambiguity around Malik’s intentions and the nature of the aliens, Pearce and Barton end up diluting the searing sympathy you should have for Malik.
That said, even when the script falters sometimes while dealing with the relationship between Malik, Jay, and Bobby, things never become uninteresting largely due to Ahmed, Chauhan, and Geddada’s chemistry. Ahmed proves yet again that he is one of the most bankable actors in the industry by embodying every feature of Malik with utmost honesty.
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He simply elevates the source material so much that it seems unfair that his co-stars have to match up to such a high level of acting. But Chauhan and Geddada more than just manage to keep up with Ahmed. They even eclipse him with their mature acting chops. Which is a good thing. Because although Ahmed is evidently capable of carrying the movie on his shoulders, his commitment to the abstract nature of the plot needs constant reciprocation from Chauhan and Geddada. And they do that, thereby grounding the narrative and helping the audience empathise with this whole situation instead of being bogged down by the absurdity of it.
In addition to them, the cast features Octavia Spencer as Malik’s parole officer Hattie, Janina Gavankar as Malik’s ex-wife Piya, Misha Collins as Piya’s husband Dylan, and Rory Cochrane as Officer Shepherd West. Their screen time is limited. However, since they’re so talented, they absolutely nail their respective roles.
Despite its shortcomings in terms of the characters and its over-commitment towards the sci-fi aspect of the story, Encounter is engaging from start to finish. To be honest, it flips genres at the tail-end of the third act and becomes one of the best action movies of the year. Riz Ahmed, Lucian-River Chauhan, and Aditya Geddada act their hearts out to keep you invested in their journey. As mentioned before, the movie looks, sounds, and moves beautifully. It sensitively adds to the ongoing conversation around PTSD and how soldiers who are unfairly pushed into violent scenarios aren’t able to return to normalcy. Although there’s nothing overtly political about the story, it manages to hit out at conspiracy theories and how it can break familial ties. And at the end of the day, Michael Pearce and Joe Barton deliver an important message about sticking with your family through the worst of times.