Film Review: “Encounter” — A Solid Genre-Spanner

By Ezra Haber Glenn

This “father and sons on the lam” film adeptly blends genres (in this case: sci-fi plus thriller). It is well assembled, emotionally compelling, and beautifully shot. 

Encounter, directed by Michael Pearce. Streaming on Amazon Prime.


Riz Ahmed, Lucian-River Chauhan, and Aditya Geddada have a bite to eat in Encounter. Credit: Amazon Studios.

One of the most common tropes in science fiction, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to They Live, features a protagonist who is in the unenviable position of knowing about an impending danger — an alien invasion, a zombie plague, a massive government conspiracy — but is unable to convince others to take the threat seriously. Worse still, not only do they refuse to believe the warnings, but typically they regard the heroes as delusional and may even try to lock them up, or worse. (Which, of course, fuels the paranoid feedback loop and/or provides further evidence of said alien invasion or government cover-up…)

In Encounter, the latest theater-and-streaming release from Amazon Studios, this stock setup is delivered via a fresh approach, benefiting from the hybrid vigor that comes from blending genres (in this case: sci-fi plus thriller). The film is well assembled, emotionally compelling, and beautifully shot, and it makes very efficient use of its relatively sparse Covid-era screen resources. And while the finale is a bit pat and predictable, the action-packed twist of a ride is well-worth the plot’s somewhat disappointing final destination.

We meet Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed), a former Marine, in a flea-bag hotel. He’s down on his luck and clearly distressed, but we can tell he’s plotting his next big move. Through some striking animated montage and compelling visual storytelling, we see what’s troubling him: he’s tracking a silent and invisible alien invasion right here on Earth. The extraterrestrial bugs — microscopic mind-control parasites brought to the planet during a recent meteor shower and transmitted from host to host via airborne insects — are visible only to those who know the warning signs as they secretly colonize the human race for their own nefarious (and admittedly vague) purposes.

Doused in a protective coating of bug repellent, Khan employs his best special forces tactical training skills to pull off a daring rescue mission. He retrieves his two young sons, living at the time with his estranged wife and her new boyfriend, presumptive tools of the aliens already. Racing deep into the wee hours of the night through the deserted wilds of the California-Nevada border, the trio head towards a mysterious “base camp.” It is a road trip full of male bonding, difficult decisions, and — for Malik’s elder son Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) — some very fast coming-of-age. (Despite the differences in style and genre, the set-up is remarkably reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s 1973 classic Badlands, if Sissy Spacek’s part had been played by two young boys. Or maybe it’s Thelma and Louise. Or Smokey and the Bandit. You know the genre: on the road and on the run, with the law hot on your trail.)

It’s difficult to say too much more about the plot without slipping into spoilers, but the well-drawn characters — played by actors who are masters of their spare, efficient craft — deserve critical praise, as does the film’s careful pacing, which builds the tension and the necessary drama without going (too far) overboard.

Ahmed delivers a powerful performance, not quite The Sound of Metal, but intense and driving nonetheless. He’s onscreen for nearly the entire 100+ minutes, and throughout he blends fear, menace, humor, and a caring compassion in a role that simultaneously celebrates and challenges the well-worn icon of the soldier-protector father figure. (Some might be put off by Ahmed’s hokey accent, but I found it pleasant and folksy.) Encounter includes some great action sequences, but the best moments are the in-between scenes, when Malik attempts to reconnect with his boys, to reassure them amid the chaos he’s brought upon them. He trains them in the (albeit potentially toxic) arts of self sufficiency and responsible manly manhood. To some extent, the role covers the same ground as Oscar Isaac’s recent work in The Card Counter — both disgraced ex-soldiers fresh out of Leavenworth, both tortured by their past and straining to hold it together, both seeking meaning and purpose as they embark on confused and desperate missions to save the innocents. But while Isaac’s Will Tell wallowed and simmered, here our hero boils over, scalding himself and everyone in the vicinity. Critics (although not this one) were drawn to the former, but Ahmed’s portrayal offers an honest frenzy that brings more human emotional depth, the kind that viewers connect with.

The key to his engaging performance is the chemistry Ahmed has with the supporting cast, Khan’s two sons. Despite their young age, the kids prove to be great screen partners for him to act against. Their relationship deepens the protagonist’s motivation beyond the contrivances of the premise. Khan fears for the planet and distrusts the authorities, but he is doing more than just racing for his life — he’s defending his family.

The younger boy, Bobby (newcomer Aditya Geddada) is charming, with a plucky disposition, a quirky scheming smile, and wide eyes that often beam at his heroic father. He’s happy with the break from routine — a road trip full of ice cream and candy, no bedtime, and even a real gun — and he’s trusting enough to not even be too stressed by the insanity of the situation.

But for his older brother Jay, the reality of the situation quickly sinks in, draining all joy from the joyride. He’s stuck in the middle: not yet an adult, but already streetwise enough to know that something’s not right with his father’s plan; old enough to know he needs to protect his little brother, but too young to know how to actually do that. It’s a painful and sadly real place for a kid to be, and Chauhan plays it for all it’s worth, often wordlessly, telegraphing fear, worry, concern, indecision, frustration, and anger with nothing more than the little muscles in the corners of his eyes. As with so many memorable films, from King Vidor’s The Crowd to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, the simple addition of a child character into an adult story tilts the balance, encouraging the narrative to explore an entirely new emotional landscape.

And, speaking of landscape, the film presents some terrific scenery once the journey hits the open road. The similarity to Badlands has already been noted, including thrilling moonlit car chases across barren desert terrain. When day breaks, the film delivers some luxurious views of an abandoned industrial ghost town, worthy of the most captivating ruin-porn and urban-exploration photo sites.

Riz Ahmed behind the wheel in Encounter.

Of course, there’s a team of cops and special agents, who may or may not be controlled by alien zombie parasites, in hot pursuit. The posse is led by a steely but fair-dealing special agent with the almost comically stereotypical name of Shepard West (Rory Cochrane), who seems determined to bring his quarry to ground, if not for his own good then at least to prevent the kids from coming to harm. More squarely in Malik’s corner is Hattie Hayes (Octavia Spencer), a parole officer with a heart of gold. And, for those who fear the movie might be too soft on law enforcement in an age of Black Lives Matter (or the closely parallel Brown ones, including Khan’s), the script includes the requisite macho highway patrol offer, as well as a trio of gun-toting white-wing hick vigilantes.

In all, it’s an engaging ride with enough thoughtful pauses to allow genuine introspection and character development. Director Michael Pearce plays fair and provides the proper combination of clues and timing to give viewers a chance to piece together the plot contortions that we won’t spoil here.

The character backgrounds and resulting psychologies are perhaps a bit too pat, but this is a pretty common Hollywood failing given the difficulty of working nuance into an action/blockbuster format. More problematic, Malik’s ex-wife — and importantly, Bobby and Jay’s mother — is only briefly introduced (Janina Gavankar) and then swept aside: a wasted opportunity at best, a deeply questionable omission at worst. It completely ignores the poor woman’s emotional stake in a story that is ostensibly centered on trauma and its aftermath.

And lastly, while we’re quibbling about ways to improve Pearce’s generally solid genre-spanner, there’s the title, generic and unremarkable to the point of embarrassment. After you see Encounter, I welcome suggestions below for any of the 1,000,001 better titles for this film.

Ezra Haber Glenn is a Lecturer in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning, where he teaches a special subject on “The City in Film.” His essays, criticism, and reviews have been published in The Arts Fuse, CityLab, the Journal of the American Planning Association, Bright Lights Film Journal, WBUR’s The ARTery, Experience Magazine, the New York Observer, and Next City. He is the regular film reviewer for Planning magazine, and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. Follow him on and


  1. Matthew C Hanson on December 19, 2021 at 10:19 pm

    Riz Ahmed is a great actor. I first noticed him in the brilliant and underrated Nightcrawler and he really moved me with his understatedly soulful performance in The Sound of Metal. I’ll give this one a look.

    • Ezra Glenn on December 20, 2021 at 11:16 am

      Dear Matthew:

      Thanks for your comment. I agree re. Riz Ahmed’s performance in Nightcrawler — he almost stole the show, and the scene with his “job interview” was really memorable (

      If you liked him in that, I think you’ll really enjoy this one, regardless of what you think of the plot: it just gives him a lot to work with, in multiple different registers. It’s especially sweet to see how well he brings out the best in the two younger actors. Enjoy!


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