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Close Encounters? No, just Encounter, though the choice of title is deliberate. Instead of Richard Dreyfuss on the road, heading towards alien contact, Encounter offers Riz Ahmed’s Malik on the road with his two sons, heading towards something… or perhaps something else… or perhaps nothing at all.

It’s all a massive tease, really, and it’s Michael Pearce doing the teasing. He was the writer and director of Beast, a similarly playful story all about innocent people who might not be innocent, strapped to a slightly sensational (if you live in Edwardian England) story about a pretty young woman (played by Jessie Buckley) of some status going all Lady Chatterley with the possibly murderous, dirty, low-rent (but oh those horny hands) Johnny Flynn.

Pearce starts off Encounter with a macro shot of something blazing into the Earth’s atmosphere and follows up swiftly with a micro shot of an insect boring into a human host and spawning inside the host’s body.

Sci-fi/alien invasion seems to be the idea, yoked to a slightly sensational plot about Malik, a former military guy, abducting his own kids and taking them out on a prolonged road trip. Malik is convinced that tiny parasitic invaders are about to get all of them if they’re not careful, and that they have already invaded the bodies of his kids’ mother and her new beau.

The aliens manifest themselves in microscopic ways invisible to most people but thanks to Malik’s extensive research in actual books about alien parasites, he’s ready for them. They show up in the pupils of anyone who’s infected, changing their behaviour slightly to make the host more belligerent, less welcoming.

The sci-fi invasion/parasitic alien insectoid takeover is an interesting idea, and allows Pearce to wrangle with aspects of the culture war, albeit in a way that generates more heat than light. The reason why other people hate your liberal-elitist/conspiracy-theorist guts is not political, it’s because an alien insect has taken control of their body and mind.

Encounter reverses the proposition of Close Encounters but actually shares more of its DNA with two films by Jeff Nichols, both starring Michael Shannon – 2011’s Take Shelter (is he mad or is there an apocalyptic storm coming?) and 2016’s more sci-fi tinged Midnight Special (dad on the road with possibly kidnapped son).

Possibly having been given a talking to by co-writer Joe Barton, Pearce blinks at a certain point and decides he’s gone down this sci-fi road far enough.

To the sound of brakes being sharply applied, enter Octavia Spencer as Malik’s parole officer, a woman convinced that Malik is an OK sort of guy who’s kidnapped his own kids because his brain’s gone slightly on the fritz. The FBI, on the other hand, led by decent, “just plain Shep” West (Rory Cochrane) think Malik is a potential “family annihilator”, the sort of guy who kills his kids just before killing himself.

Octavia Spencer as parole officer Hattie
The cavalry? Octavia Spencer as parole officer Hattie

Why hire the unceasingly excellent Spencer and then not really use her? It’s one of many puzzles in this unsatisfying film which reactivates that bit of memory about how unsatisfying the central section of Beast also was, before it all came good in the end.

Pearce tries to bring it all good in the end here too, with a grand, stand-off finale in which everything could go one way or another and which is, small mercies, genuinely tense.

Ahmed is a skilled actor well used to playing characters compromised but battling on – see Mogul Mowgli (rapper struck by mystery illness) or Sound of Metal (musician suddenly goes deaf) – for two recent examples. And as Malik guns his car and boys across empty vistas towards the inevitable showdown with fate, Ahmed is plausible as the dad nervously filling every pause in his kids’ conversation with something new and exciting, for fear his boys will start to whine that they want to go home.

The revelation is Lucian-River Chauhan as Malik’s older son, Jay, who convincingly grows up in front of our eyes and starts to put together the puzzle that is his dad, the pieces falling into place with little flicks of Chauhan’s eyes. Nice work.

Nice work all round, in fact. Ahmed, Spencer, Cochrane, Chauhan, plus Aditya Geddada as Malik’s very young boy, Bobby. Benjamin Kracun’s lensing of America’s unforgiving desert wastes is also worth a little recommendation for reflecting the desperate corner into which Malik is driving himself.

Encounter starts with an interesting idea then fumbles it. The dangle – is Malik unstable or are aliens among us? – just doesn’t work and so it turns from being a potentially fascinating film into one that’s boring and predictable. And it’s way too long.

Encounter – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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