Rating: 3 out of 5.

The newest film from Amazon Studios comes in the form of sci-fi tinged Encounter, from director Michael Pearce. Plucking three lead performances all of Pakistani background, Encounter gets more right than wrong in general. However, I could not help feeling let down by certain elements of the storyline as they unfolded. The potential brimming forth from the catchy setup promises an entirely different movie than the one we end up with. I am not sure why it remains such a big pet peeve, but when promised one thing—in this case, a concept that’s eye-popping, exciting, and propulsive—only to have it pulled out from under you, the audience frustrations are hard to ignore. That said, when Encounter dives into its action-oriented set pieces, it remains a movie worth the watch.

On the heels of two excellent performances in both Mogul Mowgli and The Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed headlines this dizzying sci-fi thriller. Ahmed plays absentee father and ex-Marine Malik, obsessed with virus-tinged news reports, self-checking his eyes, and dousing himself down excessively with some mysterious bottled “bug spray.” He has been tasked with an important mission involving parasites that live in humans. Malik must head to a base filled with scientists working on a cure, but not before making one vital pit-stop first. Along for the ride are two absolutely adorable (and impeccably well-cast) young children, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada), who play Malik’s two sons. Abducted from their home by Malik, who is quick to insist that mommy has “one inside her,” Jay and Bobby take awhile to adjust to life on the road. Pursued by his parole officer, Hattie (Octavia Spencer), and the parasites all around them, Malik races to keep his family safe, even as his own sanity hangs in the balance.

While the film’s first act is pure gold, the deeper Encounter proceeds, the less interesting it becomes. It takes over an hour for Octavia Spencer to make her first appearance, and once she does, the shift of the narrative simply did not work for me. However, I cannot undersell the brilliance of the film’s setup. The trio (father and two sons) have incredible chemistry to the point where I believed they were truly related. Malik eventually dubs them “the Three Musketeers,” and this moniker feels entirely fitting. Their relationship with Malik (who is frequently quite short-tempered, though mostly willing to divulge to them necessary information) makes Encounter an especially personal, surprisingly intimate movie.

Stylistically, Encounter is slick and horrific in its depictions of parasites, eye goop, and creepy crawlers. The opening scene finds Malik in a roach-infested room that had me grossed out, while also keeping me fully engrossed. An infestation on a bug zapper is artfully done and properly nasty as well. I wish the latter half of Encounter felt as gnarly and propulsive as its opening seemed to suggest. The film’s stunning final frame almost justifies its sharp-left turn about halfway in, but is never able to fully recover from the promise of that exceptional setup. Still, I would recommend Encounter to sci-fi or Riz Ahmed fans. It may not be perfect, yet still it brims with personality, verve, and tension.

Encounter screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, opens in select theaters on December 3rd, and comes to Amazon Prime on Friday, December 10th.

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