TIFF 2021 REVIEW: Maybe Encounter Shouldn’t Have Subverted Genre Expectations

Encounter Michael Pearce (Director and Writer), Joe Barton (Writer), Benjamin Kracun (Cinematography), Maya Maffioli (Editor) Riz Ahmed, Octavia Spencer, Rory Cochrane, Lucian-River Chauhan, Aditya Geddada (Cast) September 11, 2021 (TIFF) Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

In Encounter, a former marine suspects an alien invasion is at hand. But when he can’t get anyone to believe him, he decides to risk it all to save his sons from the impending threat.

Encounter

Michael Pearce (director and writer), Joe Barton (writer), Benjamin Kracun (cinematographer), Maya Maffioli (editor)
Riz Ahmed, Octavia Spencer, Rory Cochrane, Lucian-River Chauhan, Aditya Geddada (cast)
September 11, 2021 (TIFF)

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about Encounter when the opening scene focused on numerous bugs. I powered through my phobia because of the film’s stellar cast led by Riz Ahmed and Octavia Spencer. Surely, I would be rewarded for my efforts? Not exactly.

The film follows Malik (Riz Ahmed), who has been away from his sons due to a secret mission. On Malik’s return, he learns that alien bugs are infecting people—his estranged wife may be the next target. Malik’s primary concern is for his sons, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada). He’ll do anything to protect the boys, even if it means kidnapping them.

Malik tries to make a road trip out of the situation so that his sons don’t get too scared, a la A Beautiful Life. But Jay is particularly bright and nosy—Malik can’t keep the truth from him too long. But the further they go, the more Jay starts asking questions until he isn’t sure what to believe anymore.

Partway through the story, the film flips the script and I quite liked that unexpected twist. But I changed my mind by the closing credits. What exactly is Encounter trying to say to audiences? This isn’t a typical alien invasion film that examines humanity’s attitude towards other species — which is what I thought the film would be about. Instead, the film uses issues around mental health, family dynamics, toxic masculinity, and domestic violence to tell its story. The message, however, is blurred.

It felt to me that Encounter used a bunch of tools from its toolbox to construct a wobbly house. The story is solid — it’s unexpected, there are twists, the suspense is off the charts, and heartfelt moments are designed to move you. But the optics are all wrong.

Painting a war veteran with PTSD as an anti-hero doesn’t sit right with me. Encounter plays into the “mentally ill people are dangerous” trope, and in 2021 that is unforgivable. I also don’t understand why director Michael Pearce decided to focus on a South Asian family as the centre of this story. As excited as I was to see South Asian representation at TIFF 2021, this is not the kind of story I was hoping to see. I’m not saying that the particular situation that Encounter portrays doesn’t ever happen within South Asian families. But having a brown man be a danger to his family, in a film by a white director? Really? After the last four years in the USA, this is a weird political take.

Though I do not agree with the plot execution of Encounter, it is a startlingly beautiful film (aside from the bugs, which were awful). The cinematography captures the desolate landscapes, creating a sense of wonder and even joy despite the circumstances.

The performances are exceedingly good. I firmly believe that Riz Ahmed can play pretty much any role and make it his own. He effortlessly portrays the love Malik has for his sons, and convincingly shows how Malik can be both disoriented and determined. Octavia Spencer, on the other hand, is so criminally underused in this film that I was shocked she was brought on at all. Of course, she does an amazing job with what little she’s given. You can see how much her character, Hattie, cares about Malik while still trying to keep his sons safe. But the real star of Encounter is Lucian-River Chauhan as Jay. He has excellent chemistry with Ahmed in every scene. The father-son bond is palpable and adds to the tension of the story. Chauhan gets the emotions just right — not an easy task for a young boy in a terrifying situation. It’s Chauhan’s believability that makes the film watchable.

I really wanted to enjoy Encounter, and I did feel immersed in it. But the ending just didn’t work. It felt like the film was glorifying a dangerous situation that far too many families face in real life. And seriously, the demonization of mental illness has got to go. Also, please can we get an insect warning for films. Sheesh! Despite strong performances and gorgeous cinematography, Encounter does a few too many things wrong to be a wholly enjoyable experience.

Louis Skye

Louis Skye

A writer at heart with a fondness for well-told stories, Louis Skye is always looking for a way to escape the planet, whether through comic books, films, television, books, or video games. E always has an eye out for the subversive and champions diversity in media. Louis' podcast, Stereo Geeks, is available on all major platforms. Pronouns: E/ Er/ Eir

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