Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Movie Review: “Encounter” a Paranoid Missive Of its Time

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” Whether attributed to Delmore Schwartz, Henry Kissinger or Joseph Heller, this adage has transcended its origins, attaining fresh relevance whenever the world seems to spin off its axis, when governments lose credibility, when conspiracy theories blanket the populace like light pollution.

As we are fully enmeshed in one of these cycles now, Michael Pearce’s sci-fi psychodrama “Encounter” feels ideally suited to the zeitgeist. It opens with an image of an object blazing through the night sky, crashing somewhere amid the fruited plane. A mantis gathers near its detritus. One insect infects another. A mosquito punctures the flesh of a human, sending a diaphanous pathogen into its accommodating host, and we’re off to the pandemic races.

But only one man seems to have the knowledge of this stealth extraterrestrial invasion: Decorated Marine Corps veteran Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed). Malik appears at the Oregon home of his estranged ex-wife and two young boys (Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada) for the first time in two years, plucking them out of bed in the dead of night for a “family road trip” that he sees as a rescue mission. Armed with a handgun, a body spray that will keep them safe from infection, and elaborate renderings of the insects’ physiology, he’s planning to spirit them away to the only safe haven in the country, Groom Lake, Nevada—which, while never mentioned, UFO enthusiasts will recognize as the home of Area 51.

Signs that Malik may in fact be humanity’s lone savior appear in droves. His ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) is bitten by an insect; we subsequently see her retching into a toilet. (“It’s just a bug—don’t worry about it,” the stepfather ensures the two boys). When Malik is pulled over by the police at 3 a.m., we see “X-Files”-style black oil slithering around the officer’s irises; the eyes, Malik believes, are key to spotting infection.

Malik, however, is an unreliable narrator. He’s been in prison, not serving his country, for the past two years. When he tells his boys he’s calling his “base,” he’s really dialing his parole officer, Hattie (a compassionate Octavia Spencer). He was convicted for assaulting a superior in the armed forces, and that volcanic side to his personality occasionally crops up when dealing with his children.

Is Malik a kidnapper or hero? A protector of his family or a destroyer of it? These are the questions “Encounter” explores through its shifty storytelling, as Malik’s subjective experience meshes indistinguishably with the objective reality around him. There’s an interactive quality to “Encounter,” because the extent in which you believe Malik depends on how conspiracy-minded you are to begin with.

The film takes a bit too many narrative shortcuts to move the action along, and it’s a less interesting picture once it fully plays its hand. But the larger issues it raises extend beyond the purview of genre fiction. Pearce, who co-wrote the film with Joe Barton, is interested in how wild ideas fester and metastasize, and particularly how ill-equipped our institutions, from the military to law enforcement, are in dealing with the stigma of mental illness.

If Malik is correct about everything, we’re certainly doomed. If he isn’t, he is a tragic victim of a broken VA health system. And there’s no vaccine for institutional neglect.

“Encounter” is streaming now on Amazon Prime and playing at Silverspot Cinema in Coconut Creek.


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John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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