starring Riz Ahmed, Octavia Spencer, Janina Gavankar, Rory Cochrane
screenplay by Joe Barton and Michael Pearce
directed by Michael Pearce
by Walter Chaw It's possible that Michael Pearce's Encounter is its own worst enemy. The opening hour or so is remarkable stuff: tetchy, kinetic, terrifying--the honourable sequel in spirit to Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where insects become the vectors of an alien virus that appears to change our DNA and, with it, our behaviour. Such a smart idea for an era in which more and more people are coming around to the idea that fully half of us at any one time are mindless animals powered by the pleasure principle and the selfish cell and little else. They would watch us die without a flicker of recognizable empathy. Nothing is real to them unless it happens directly to them--there is no evidence save that of the flesh, of their flesh, that could compel them to care about the suffering of another human being. Not even care--nothing could compel them to acknowledge that suffering was possible. They are empty of imagination, devoid of personality; they are essentially alien things neither malign nor beneficent. And there is no better explanation for their existence among us than what Encounter at first appears to be getting at: the government is aware that an unknowable influence has taken over half the population, and it's only a matter of time before the rest of us succumb. Delicious. Pearce's treatment of it is delicious, too, as uncomfortable and alive as William Friedkin's Bug, paired beat-for-frantic-beat with an extraordinary performance by Riz Ahmed, who might be incapable of providing any other.
Ahmed is Malick, an ex-Marine who discovers the Big Secret and rushes home to save his two young boys from their mother and her boyfriend, who are, of course, infected. There's a scene where he's ushering the kids out of the house when the eldest boy, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan), notices a bar stool upturned in the kitchen down the hall. He's listening to his dad, but wondering how something like that could be out of place. Encounter has so many tense, subtle moments like this in the early going that it seems impossible it would become as tired, proselytizing, and rote as it does by the end. Malick makes up games for the boys while he douses them with bug spray, promises them a stay in their bedtimes and unlimited ice cream and candy, and scans every gas station and environment for signs they've been discovered. The picture's first half has wonderful tension, a lively undertow, and a sequence where a cop pulls them over only to discover the fraught and terrible lengths to which Malick will go to protect his children. When a stray bullet pierces Malick's truck where the kids are cowering, I caught my breath. And then it all goes really wrong, as Encounter introduces a case-worker, Hattie (Octavia Spencer), who is sketchily written and curiously positioned as both exposition dump and plot device. Seems Malick's spent time in Leavenworth for striking a superior officer...
That's right, there's a terrestrial explanation for Encounter and, man, is it boring. It abandons the specific point-of-view that we're under attack in favour of the alleged intrigue of "Are we under attack?" Yes, we are. You can either make a movie that tries to deal with it through metaphor and mildly fanciful speculation, or you can take a both-sides bullshit approach that posits our very real division as a figment of someone's PTSD. This is the problem whenever trauma and mental illness are presented as the headwaters for violence, especially towards one's children. Not because it never happens, but because it's a can of worms that deserves more than a thriller's treatment of it. And it's a problem when you set up the perfect science-fiction premise to address the inexplicable state of our state, then abandon it for the usual intrigues about kids in peril and a madman who is either right about the reasons he's insane or wrong and just hurting from his painful experiences at the behest of the evil American empire. What begins so promisingly ends so incredibly prosaically. It's an incredible shame, because through it all, Ahmed's exposed-wire twitchiness and attempts to connect with his children in an apocalyptic scenario without frightening them feel authentically desperate. He echoes, I think, what we're all feeling. What do we tell our kids when our leadership seems intent on seeing them dead for political gain? Encounter is a terrible disappointment, though Ahmed is a treasure. I'll hold onto that when the red tide rises.