Encounter is an intentionally ambiguous sci-fi drama that furthers Riz Ahmed’s star quality: TIFF 2021 Review

There’s a consistent thrill to Encounter, Michael Pearce‘s ambitious science fiction-leaning effort that delights in its ambiguous nature.  At least, for the most part.  Seen through the eyes of an unreliable narrator (an as expected stellar Riz Ahmed), Pearce’s film is better when it’s holding on to its secrets.  There’s something deeper and darker at bay, but when the film opts to cease leaning into such obscurity, it tragically undoes so much of what keeps it under your skin.

Ahmed leads the charge as Malik, a former marine convinced that the world is in the midst of an alien invasion.  He has proof that a species of intergalactic parasites have infected near-half the US population, biting their hosts and controlling them from within.  It’s this panic that leads him to abducting his two children – Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada) – in the middle of the night from his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar), believing she has been infected herself.

The opening act of Encounter, where Malik embarks on a road trip with his sons, is arguably where Pearce’s film – co-written with Joe Barton (The Ritual) – is at its strongest.  It blends the paranoia of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with the minimalistic horror of Under The Skin, constantly keeping Malik’s psyche confidential as to whether or not he genuinely has uncovered alien life or it’s a form of PTSD-driven delusions.

Encounter is ultimately a more intriguing film should you go in blind, so I’m keeping my words intentionally vague as, regardless as to whether or not you agree the film sticks its landing, the journey to that point is worth uncovering for yourself.

The early subtlety is truly so masterful, and even though its eventual descent into a more dramatic family temperament doesn’t feel in tune with the initial set-up, it’s by no means a bad film.  It being less of a science-fiction project and more a commentary on the destructive personality of Ahmed’s Malik relating to his children is how the film should be approached, but that’s perhaps an appreciation one will get on a second viewing.

Two investing halves that don’t entirely make a cohesive whole, Ahmed’s incredible performance holds Encounter together in spite of any of its faults, which, I suspect, will perplex many a viewer who won’t appreciate Pearce’s sudden genre shift.

THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Encounter is screening as part of this year’s Toronto Film Festival, which is being presented both in-person and virtually between September 9th and 18th, 2021.  For more information head to the official TIFF page.  It will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from December 10th, 2021.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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