Let’s talk about truth in advertising.
And let’s talk about it in terms of movies.
ENCOUNTER (2021), a new Amazon original movie, is marketed as a science fiction film. It’s not. At all. And while I realize the filmmakers don’t always have control over how their movie is marketed, in terms of this movie, the false claim was a major distraction throughout. I love science fiction movies and was in the mood to watch one when I sat down to view this film, and so it was a huge letdown when this turned out not to be the case.
That being said, ENCOUNTER is still a pretty darn good drama, which begs the question, why mess with viewers and tell them the film is something it’s not?
ENCOUNTER opens with a montage that made me think of the 1978 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, as we see images of something crash landing on Earth, and then we watch close-ups of insects ingesting alien microbes, and then insects biting humans, transmitting the alien micro-organisms into the human race. I liked this opening and was looking forward to where this science fiction tale would lead me.
We next meet Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) who’s working for the government, tracking this alien infection, as what is happening is again right out of an INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS movie as the alien microbes are taking over the humans’ bodies. Malik sneaks into the home of his ex-wife in the middle of the night to rescue his two young sons, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada), and he tells them he is taking them on a special trip. Eventually he does tell them about the aliens, and he says that he is taking them to a safe military base, and then he will return for their mom, who he says has already been infected.
But when he calls this military base, in reality, he’s calling Hattie Hayes (Octavia Spencer), his parole officer. See, in reality, Malik does not work for the government. He’s been in jail. And he’s not “rescuing” his kids. He’s kidnapping them. Of course, in his mind, he really does believe in the alien story. But this movie doesn’t even play up the angle that, is it really aliens, or is it just in his mind? Nope. As soon as Hattie enters the story, it’s as clear as day. Malik is simply messed up, dealing with his own personal demons. There are no aliens. This isn’t a science fiction movie.
The good news is the story that is told here works, mostly because of the performances of the three main players. Riz Ahmed is believable as the dad who is struggling with reality, and who really does want to spend time with his kids. He’s sufficiently unstable and jittery, yet convincing and strong when he says he wants nothing more than to protect his kids. He gets even better later in the film when he acknowledges his struggle with reality.
Even better than Ahmed are the performances of the two young actors, Lucian-River Chauhan as ten year-old Jay, and Aditya Geddada as his younger brother Bobby. Together, they pretty much steal the entire movie.
Octavia Spencer is reduced to a throwaway role as parole officer Hattie Hayes, a role that anyone could play. She doesn’t get to do much at all. Rory Cochrane fares a bit better as the weathered, experienced federal law enforcement officer who is in pursuit of Malik.
ENCOUNTER has its share of tense scenes, from a shoot-out with two adult sons of a man Malik shot and left for dead, to a rather riveting climax which includes a car chase and eventual stand-off, and director Michael Pearce handles all of these sequences well.
The screenplay by director Pearce and Joe Barton isn’t anything special. It’s a straightforward story of a man who kidnaps his children, driven by the desire to spend time with them, and the suspense lies in the knowledge that he’s just unhinged and delusional enough that he could harm them, or worse. The science fiction angle doesn’t really work because it’s dismissed so easily so early in the game, which is too bad because it’s an element of the story that had a lot of potential.
Barton also wrote the screenplay for THE RITUAL (2017), a horror movie from a few years back that I thought was okay but wasn’t all that crazy about.
As a straightforward drama, ENCOUNTER isn’t half bad. The three main players were good enough that I didn’t mind going along for the ride to see where their plight would take them. But it’s not a science fiction movie, which is doubly troubling, because not only is it marketed as one, but the science fiction elements were certainly the most innovate part of this story, and once revealed that they are only the figments of the main character’s troubled mind, the story loses any originality it may have possessed.
It’s not the encounter I expected.