British director Michael Pearce is back for his sophomore feature Encounter, following the critically acclaimed psychological thriller Beast, with an intriguing and genre-defying sci-fi road trip turned family drama. However, there is a certain twist revealed throughout which may divide viewers, as not all is quite what it seems.

Marine veteran Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) uncovers top-secret information that an alien threat has invaded Earth, with non-terrestrial micro-organisms infecting up to half of the human population. With the US government covering up the threat, Malik takes it upon himself to rescue his two sons Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada), from his ex-wife Piya (Janina Gavankar) who also appears to be infected and potentially contagious.

Following the impressively haunting wordless opening sequence, which follows an asteroid landing on Earth setting off a chilling chain-of-events, Pearce takes us on a chilling journey descending into the bloodstream. An infected microscopic Tardigrade swims through the body and inevitably bursts open, subsequently infecting the host. Meanwhile, spore-carrying mosquitos bite and eerie worms visibly crawl through pupils, in a significant nod to Ridley’s Prometheus, resulting in a disturbing setup.

Malik collects his top-secret documents, profusely sprays himself with bug spray and sets out on a dangerous mission, full of suspense and teased body horror – or so we thought. Pearce plays a sleight-of-hand rug pull with the narrative following the first act, changing gear for a much more commonplace family drama. This step away from the initial premise felt somewhat disappointing and frustrating, particularly due to the film’s marketing. However, Ahmed and the two newcomers Chauhan and Geddada’s help performances elevate the jarring material. 

Tonally the film does feel mismatched, as Encounter evolves more into a heartwarming and eventually complex study of the relationship between a father and his sons. Following standout performances in Mogul Mowgli and Sound of Metal, British actor Riz Ahmed once again excels with a nuanced and complicated performance. Here he sympathetically peels back the layers of Malik, ranging from the heroic father figure at the start, to a tortured soul haunted by his demons in the emotional and heart-wrenching finale.

Riz Ahmed in Encounter

However, it’s his dynamic with newcomers Aditya Geddada and Lucian-River Chauhan which is undoubtedly the strongest aspect of the latter half of the film. The duo surprisingly hold their own against the intense actor, with the ever cheeky Geddada stealing a number of scenes, while Chauhan brings an excellent wisdom beyond his years to the role. Octavia Spencer also shows up in a minor supporting role as Hattie, a mediator between the vet and the authorities, linked to Malik’s tragic past. Unfortunately the ever-talented Spencer is criminally underused.

Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun superbly captures a tense and thrilling chase as the trio attempt to escape from the insect infection, with a particularly impressive eye for shadowy lit sequences. There’s a number of intense horror/body invasion shots reminiscent of The Fly and Invasion of the Body Snatchers which help fuel the early jump scares. These sequences are expertly scored, with an increasingly sinister and skin-crawling theme by Jed Kurzel. As the expansive locations in Northern California begin to open up throughout their road trip, the beautiful landscapes really do inspire, lending an air of Thelma & Louise to a couple of the action sequences.

Verdict

Featuring a brilliant dynamic between Riz Ahmed and newcomers Aditya Geddada and Lucian-River Chauhan, paired with impressively skin-crawling body horror, Encounter starts off as a solid sci-fi outing. However, Pearce does lose sight of the original concept in a potentially disappointing genre-bending final act. 

Rating: ½