Mild spoilers for Encounter to follow!
I wasn’t particularly excited to be watching Encounter, the latest “alien invasion movie” to hit Amazon Prime, since that genre isn’t always my thing, but Riz Ahmed’s lead performance was garnering some praise in my circles, so I thought I’d give it a try. I’m glad I did, because while Encounter is by no means my favorite movie of the year, it’s easily one of the most affecting.
The film’s quality hinges on the believability of Ahmed’s performance. The plot centers around his character, Malik Khan, who is a divorced former U.S. Marine with two sons, both of whom live with their mother and her new partner. Malik, who lives alone, is convinced that there’s an alien invasion on Earth — he has all the typical news clippings and scattered notes to prove it. He’s also convinced that his ex is infected with one of these alien parasites, which appears in the shape of Earthly insects. So Malik decides to “rescue” his sons from their mother and drive them to safety. He tells them to always apply bug spray and stay away from strangers so they don’t catch the parasite themselves.
This all begins compellingly — it comes across as a sci-fi alien mystery thriller and it’s difficult not to get invested. Ahmed is unsurprisingly brilliant; I’d just prefer for his sake that he gets to play a happy character sometime in the future. Running from aliens, parole officers, police officers, and the people he’s wronged obviously puts Malik in a quite strained position, and he has to take care of two kids on top of it all.
But here’s where the aforementioned spoiler comes in — about halfway through the film, you begin to realize that Malik’s made it all up, but not intentionally. There’s no alien invasion. There’s no reason to be scared of the people around him. And there’s absolutely no reason to be abducting his own kids the way he has. Instead, it’s Malik’s time in the military and the PTSD that he’s developed from it which are affecting him.
This film shows the lengths to which people’s minds play tricks on them. It’s a truly moving portrait about parenthood, PTSD, and the way veterans in the U.S. are cast away once they return home. Fortunately, through the parole officer Hattie (the always marvelous Octavia Spencer), the film takes its exploration on these topics a step further. It strongly encourages non-violence and champions social workers with a history of conflict management and deescalation over the shoot-first mindset of law enforcement. The film gets you wrapped up in Malik’s mind while still giving POV to the other characters to show how Malik is affecting those around him. It makes lots of smart choices, even though its midpoint about-face can feel quite jarring.
Encounter is guilty of two things: not living up to what the marketing advertised and being immensely successful despite it. It checks both the emotional investment box as well as the systemic commentary box, and they’re both given lots of attention and nuance. Anchored by two tremendously personal and raw performances, Encounter is one that’s sure to stick with you.