All alien invasions start the same way: they come from the skies. However the most insidious and, some could argue, most successful alien invasions are not the ones where extra-terrestrials announce themselves from giant ships hovering over recognisable landmarks. It’s the ones where they attack from within, hidden, that prove the most effective.
The Thing famously told us that “Man is the warmest place to hide”. The alien threat in Michael Pearce’s science fiction thriller Encounter also use human beings as hosts, but the method of infection is more in line with Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.
An elegant opening sequence, which could pass for a nature documentary, shows a meteorite crash to the Earth’s surface. Within it, micro-organisms who quickly and efficiently transfer themselves up the insectoid food chain, until they are finally passed into a human’s bloodstream via mosquito bite.
Cut to the introduction of Malik Khan, played by Riz Ahmed. Upon waking he checks his eyes, scrutinising his irises as though looking for something. He then proceeds to cover himself in insect repellent, before setting off. He is clearly a man who is scared, perhaps even paranoid, cautious but driven.
Malik’s two sons Jay and Bobby (Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada, respectively) live with his ex-wife and her new husband. Malik arrives to their house late in the night and tells the boys he has just returned from his tour in the military, and that they’re going on a trip to celebrate – they must leave immediately, he tells them, as the kids excitedly put on shoes and run out the house.
On the road, a tense encounter with a highway patrol cop turns violent and Malik is forced to tell the boys the truth. Extra-terrestrial organisms are infecting humans through insect bites, transferring alien parasites who end up able to control their host’s body. Their mother and her partner were both infected, and there is no telling how many more have become victims to these invaders. The only course of action, until a cure is found, is for him to take them to safety.
Continuing a hot streak of performances in the likes of Sound Of Metal and Mogul Mowgli, Ahmed is magnetic on screen. His physicality and energy telegraph a man tightly coiled like a spring, ready to snap at any moment, threatening a spark that could ignite a powder keg of violence. While battling his own demons, his love for his sons is unquestionable, and protecting them is paramount to him.
They say that everyone is the hero of their own story. Malik believes that he is doing the right thing and yet, when he makes a phone call to “base” – manned by Octavia Spencer‘s Hattie – it becomes clear that their route to salvation won’t be an easy one.
Director Michael Pearce has already shown in Beast that he can effortlessly blend various tones and genres to great effect. His screenplay with Joe Barton evolves into something that, despite some minor jarring elements, builds to a stunning emotional payoff in the film’s climax. To say any more would be doing Encounter a disservice.
Suffice to say that if, much like the lead character, audiences persevere and choose stay the narrative course, this is one close Encounter of the first class kind.
Encounter screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2021, and is available on Prime Video from December 10th 2021.