by David Katz
- British helmer Michael Pearce follows up his BAFTA-winning debut, Beast, with this taut US-set sci-fi, toplined by Riz Ahmed
This is a film about America, devised by a director from Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands. Indeed, Encounter [+see also:
interview: Michael Pearce
film profile] helmer Michael Pearce’s previous film – the acclaimed thriller Beast [+see also:
interview: Michael Pearce
film profile] – is possibly the most notable one set in and concerning that locale, which has recently been embroiled in a dispute regarding post-Brexit fishing rights. But with America’s global influence and soft power as vast as ever, he’s not the first foreign filmmaker driven to say something authoritative and convincing about it: in this case, addressing numerous Trump-era talking points through a propulsive, semi-sci-fi chase structure. It is attractively shot on location in the parched Nevada desert, but always with British-Pakistani lead actor Riz Ahmed as its nervy focal point (although his American accent, just like in Sound of Metal and Nightcrawler, is terrific). The film had its UK premiere last week at the BFI London Film Festival, after previously bowing at Telluride and TIFF.
The picture was first announced under the title Invasion in 2018, just after Pearce’s BAFTA Award for his debut – enough time for a certain cataclysmic global event to intervene and cast new associations on the story, by the time of its shoot in autumn last year. Encounter’s first-act trigger is the threat of a viral disease from an extraterrestrial source: spores from a meteor begin infecting human hosts, and Ahmed’s character, Malik, a dishonourably discharged ex-marine, is the only one aware and alert to the danger, whilst the federal authorities laugh it off. But given that he is riddled with mental-health issues and PTSD, will anyone believe him?
He jumps ship from his parole officer in Oregon, and abducts his two precocious and quite adorable sons, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada), from the residence of his more well-to-do ex-wife. They charge southwards down the American interstate highways, with an ambiguous end goal, and here, flaws in Pearce and co-writer Joe Barton’s screenplay begin to emerge, although the former’s direction is always crisp and unpredictable. Humorous, too, with Ahmed charismatically essaying the “stock” role of the rapscallion divorced dad, and then plunging into a stealthy armed face-off against a zombie – the kind where a prawn-like exoskeleton emerges from a human mouth.
Encounter is a work where its arguable defects and odd, untidy edges can be explained away, and justified, partly because it deepens some of the personal concerns of Beast (Pearce’s father was in the military, and Jessie Buckley’s character in that film was also nursing a troubled relationship with reality). Referencing American policing, fake news and the “Q” conspiracy movement, it has its ear up to the zeitgeist, yet never over-strains for topicality. From the start, we feel an intrusive resemblance to other modern, elevated sci-fi – Arrival, Midnight Special and the like – but it then steadies itself into a more earthbound meditation on whether the ends (the hopeful glimmer of safety) justify the means (Malik’s impulsive and dangerous actions). And that’s about as American a question as you can get from the two Brits Pearce and Barton, peering out from across the Atlantic. If it also distractedly veers away from the initial bio-horror set-up, that’s because it writes itself into an expanse of ideas as wide as a desert, rather than backing itself into a corner.
Encounter is a UK-US co-production staged by Dimitri Doganis, Piers Vellacott for RAW, and Derrin Schlesinger. Other production companies involved are Amazon Studios, Automatik Entertainment, Big Indie Pictures and Film4.
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