Encounter is bugged-out science fiction paranoia, stylish and sinewy, with an opening sequence that may have you bolting for the door, or at least the remote control. Something foreign has landed on our planet and got in the soil: microscopic mites. They infest insects, and we see the body of a prone, sleeping person get bitten, in a forensic sequence of effects shots which lead us deep down under the skin. A bug bursts in this host’s cushy innards, and wriggling microbes are suddenly everywhere.
Malik (Riz Ahmed) wakes up. He seems fine, if a little wired, and sprays himself thoroughly with insect repellent, checking his eyeballs in the mirror. He’s a veteran of the Marine Corps who’s done ten tours; they’ve made him alert to every danger, proactive about getting in front of a problem. The threat of alien organisms taking us over is a fairly major one.
Malik’s two young sons (Lucian-River Chauhan, Aditya Geddada) are growing up with their mother and stepdad in Oregon, but he’s not taking any chances with their safety, especially not after his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) gets a bite on the back of the neck, and retires to bed feeling peaky.
That’s nearly as much of Encounter’s plot as I’m willing to dispense – any more would tip the wink about what British director Michael Pearce, in his follow-up to the excellent Beast (2017), has in mind. His script, co-written by the always-sharp Joe Barton (The Ritual, My Days of Mercy), is a clever exercise in switching tacks, not just sprinkling paranoia on as seasoning, but causing us to doubt what we genuinely know.
When a state trooper (Dash Mihok) pulls father and sons over at 3am, there’s something up with one of his eyes, but only Malik and the viewer are in a position to notice. The older boy, Jay, is in the back seat, running calculations on everything else that doesn’t add up.
We’re fully aware what a live-wire Ahmed can be, but he grounds this intriguing genre piece by how stealthily he underplays it: part of Malik’s survival instinct, after all, is managing to tamp down any wild-eyed hysteria and make himself understood.
Pearce does a great job with the child actors, too, who are apart enough in age that one boy, on this unplanned road trip, can be delightfully carefree while the other quietly unravels. The film has extremely classy photography by Benjamin Krakun that deserves a big screen; the score’s epic crescendos, meanwhile – it’s by the reliably brooding Jed Kurzel (Snowtown; The Babadook) – are stilled by jolting cuts.
On the whole, perhaps it’s more polished than purposeful. There’s a sense of Pearce flexing what he can achieve on an Amazon budget, with Ahmed’s US co-stars (Octavia Spencer, Rory Cochrane) lending all the texture they can to pretty functional roles – as Malik’s parole officer (he’s been in Leavenworth, it turns out) and the FBI agent on his tail.
The way Ahmed plays Malik’s various run-ins with white cops and vigilantes, the film gains some juice as a study of alienation, even if it could have squeezed quite a bit more out of this. Otherwise, I kept admiring the craft and really not minding the haphazard journey; it’s a kick, in fact, watching Pearce think fast to make each individual sequence satisfy and just about shunt into the next.
It ends, as it must, in the Nevada desert, that old site of nuclear testing and Area 51, where many a 1950s B-movie staged its finale. Perhaps a giant ant or two wouldn’t have gone amiss, but the reality check Pearce orchestrates has a mandible grip of its own.
15 cert, 108 min. Dir: Michael Pearce Starring: Riz Ahmed, Octavia Spencer, Lucian-River Chauhan, Aditya Geddada, Rory Cochrane, Dash Mihok, Janina Gavankar. In cinemas from Dec 3, on Amazon Prime from Dec 10