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TIFF 2021 Review: Encounter – “Riz Ahmed again demonstrates his considerable talents”

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Image Courtesy of TIFF

In the opening sequences of Encounter we see a meteorite hitting the earth, its particles touching everything in its path and making its way into insects and eventually into people.  These organisms are what Malik (Riz Ahmed) is tracking.  Non-terrestrial microorganisms from another planet that are using people as hosts and changing our behaviour.  As a former marine, Malik has been specifically trained to utilize his skills for tracking and study of these creatures, a covert mission that has kept him away from his two sons for years.

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Things however are now out of control.  Malik is seeing these creatures everywhere.  He checks his eyes every morning for signs of infection.  He douses himself in bug spray to keep himself safe.  With this infestation escalating he makes the decision to rescue his two boys, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and younger brother Bobby (Aditya Geddada) from their home, where their mother is already infected.  His mission is to get them back to his base, where they are doing research into a cure, before it’s too late.

Possibly minor spoilers ahead.

Director Michael Pearce, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Barton, follows up his well-received 2017 film Beast with a confident hand.  As things unfold in Encounter, it becomes clear that there is more to this than just an homage to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but Pearce keeps the audience guessing as to what to believe, especially with the presence of a very unreliable narrator in Malik.  It’s this disorientation that is the film’s greatest asset, save for its performances.  So it’s somewhat disappointing when, about halfway through the film we are distinctly told what is real and what is not, trading in one premise for a more conventional and action-packed second half.

That said, Riz Ahmed, who earned himself an Oscar nomination for Sound of Metal, again demonstrates his considerable talents.  He is a riveting presence on screen, and as things become more complex emotionally and psychologically for Malik he especially shines.  Chauhan and Gaddada are also excellent child actors, able to match Ahmed in intensity, a surprise I truly wasn’t expecting.  The three have an easy chemistry that makes their family bond believable, even when nothing else is.  Octavia Spencer also arrives in the film in a supporting role, and while always reliable, her character is there mostly for the purpose of explanation and perspective.

For those who have a bug phobia, you may tap out after the initial few minutes of the film – be warned there are plenty creepy-crawly moments throughout that may have you squirming.  For those hoping for a pure sci-fi adventure, you may feel abandoned by this film partway through.  Those that persist through these changing elements will still find some compelling family drama, some good action sequences and tense moments.  It just feels more procedural than what came before it and doesn’t really live up to the intriguing and well-earned potential of the first half.

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