Encounter Review

In the Nevada desert, former Marine Malik (Riz Ahmed) attempts to save his two young sons from an alien invasion in which parasites are taking over people’s brains. But could it be the demons Malik is battling?

by Nikki Baughan |
Updated on
Release Date:

03 Dec 2021

Original Title:


In 2017, British filmmaker Michael Pearce made a stunning feature debut with Beast, a Jersey-set Gothic fairy tale about a young woman who falls for a mysterious outsider as a spate of murders rock her isolated community. His bigger-budgeted, US-set follow-up Encounter surprisingly follows a more traditional narrative — and arguably takes fewer risks — but still leaves a mark.


Pearce is a filmmaker adept at blending the beautiful and the horrifying, as evidenced by the film’s striking opening sequence. A glowing meteor streaks high through the night sky and strikes the Earth; a sharp shift from long shot to intense macro photography shows forest-floor insects ingesting the resulting debris, one of which is then devoured by a mosquito who goes on to infect a human with a burrowing bug — with devastating consequences.

It’s not long before the film makes a tonal shift from science-fiction to psychological drama.

It’s a deft set-up of the film’s premise and its concerns with both the otherworldly and the intimately, messily human, as seen through the experiences of troubled protagonist Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed). Former Marine Malik has learned about this alien threat, and determines to save his estranged sons, ten-year-old Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and eight-year-old Bobby (Aditya Geddada). Mounting a night-time rescue mission from their mother’s California home, the three strike out on a cross-country road trip to the supposed safety of an army base in Nevada.

But Malik — with his nightmares, his jumpy demeanour, his short-fuse temper — is clearly less than trustworthy, and it’s not long before the film makes a tonal shift from science-fiction to psychological drama. Pearce and co-screenwriter Joe Barton (TV’s Giri/Haji) are less interested in narrative ambiguity, and more in exploring the effect of extended trauma on a previously healthy mind. Ahmed has an innate ability to draw on his character’s deepest emotional struggles without ever pulling too much to the surface. We believe he is a loving father, a well-intentioned man, even as he pulls his children through the desert without so much as a toothbrush. Chauhan is affecting as loyal elder son Jay, for whom this trip marks the end of childhood innocence.

Evocative camerawork from Benjamin Kracun (who also lensed Beast and Promising Young Woman) contrasts the anonymous, alien expanse of the desert with the pressure-cooker environment of the car. The colour palette evolves from woozy extra-terrestrial greens to warning reds to bleached-out yellows, while Paul Davies’ excellent sound design intensifies everyday noises — the whirr of a supermarket freezer, the hum of traffic — before cutting back to normality. It’s all subtle, and disorienting, until a disappointingly conventional showdown wreaks blunt, Hollywood-style havoc in the film’s final moments.

While Michael Pearce’s second feature may not deliver quite the same wallop as his debut feature Beast, it demonstrates the same mastery of filmmaking craft and another incredible performance from Riz Ahmed.
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