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TIFF 21: ‘Encounter’ Stellar Performances Cannot Overcome An Overstuffed Script – Review

Encounter follows the story of Marine Corp veteran Malik (Riz Ahmed), as he takes his sons on the run from folks chasing them, and also an alien invasion. The film is wrapped in mystery and suspense as impending danger looms over Malik and his sons. It is in the execution that the carefully contracted layers begin to fall apart, and no amount of superb acting from Riz Ahmed could do much to save it.

Ahmed is the sort of actor that can elevate whatever project he stars in. His charisma and talent are beyond that of his contemporaries. While I do appreciate the choices he has had made recently, Encounter is sadly a massive miss.

(Courtesy of Prime Video)

The film attempts to grapple with larger and nuanced topics within the science-fiction thriller framework and through the perspective of a young boy watching his father attempt to save their family. Herein lies the trouble of the film’s story; it is unable to land on the perspective it should be told from. Is this Malik’s story? Is it his son Jay’s story? Why do we defer from them to include the perspective of those pursuing them, like Octavia Spencer’s Hattie? The film is unable to hone in on the intimate family portrait. Due to this unwillingness to capture the bigger aspect of the family portrait, Encounter gets lost within the grander framework of the alien invasion. In the end, Michael Pearce, who had an outstanding debut feature with Beast, is unable to juggle all the elements that make up Encounter. In theory, the pieces work, in practice, there is a lot of fumbling.

Science fiction has always been a means of telling grounded and nuanced stories in spectacular fashion. Science fiction is most notably used as a means of commenting on the current state of affairs concerning our governments, environment, economy, and other socially relevant topics that populate our news cycles. Encounter is no different. However, the topic it means to tackle feels woefully underdeveloped and somewhat short-sighted. The parasitic aliens that threaten the planet reflect a real-world danger, but Encounter can’t articulate what that is. Of course, they could just be a plot device, the means to kickstart Malik’s frantic attempts to save his family, but if this science fiction trope to be utilized, then it should be used in a meaningful way.

(Courtesy of Prime Video)

Despite the flaws in the narrative structure and execution, the film is not without its moments. Ahmed is rather exceptional. He brings great depth and sympathy to his character, who is both adept at conflict and at his wit’s end. Someone who is struggling as much as Malik can come off as far too unlikable in the hands of another actor, but Ahmed infuses enough kindness and consideration into the role to bring us an individual not too dissimilar from many people we may know – people who are desperate for help, but are simply not getting what they need. On the flip side, the film has two incredible performances from two young bright stars, Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada. These two are an absolute delight and alongside Ahmed create a beautiful depiction of a father’s love for his children. That is the heart of this film and although the film loses sight of its two greatest assets (these two boys), the film still manages to capture the light that is this love story. 

Encounter is a film that will leave you wondering, “What if?” There are a number of choices that could have gone a different direction, or perhaps more faith should have been given to creating a more intimate narrative. However, Encounter is simply a movie that had potential, and certainly had a concept that may have been better explored in a miniseries. And with Amazon Prime Video as the distributor of the film, it is hardly a stretch to imagine someone thinking that perhaps this potential should be expanded upon.

Rating: 6/10

Encounter screened at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10 and will have a limited theatrical release on December 3 prior to streaming on Amazon Prime Video on December 10.

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