Directed by Michael Pierce
Rated R (Language; Some Violence)
Now streaming on Amazon Prime
Movies in which the protagonist suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder usually offer great drama as long as one doesn’t mind watching two-plus hours of personal suffering. Although these sorts of films are never easy to sit through, they can be cathartic and are often masterpieces, such as “The Deer Hunter” and “Mystic River.”
“Encounter” is the latest film to address the tragically fragile psyches of soldiers and Marines returning home after serving in the Middle East. In this case, Malik Kahn (Riz Ahmed) has been released from military jail, and after returning home to see his two sons (now living with his ex-wife and her new husband), it’s not long before he throws the two boys into his car and drives away to have an extended road-trip adventure. If it were only that easy.
You see, Kahn believes that alien parasites in the form of insects have landed on Earth and are slowly assuming the consciousnesses of unsuspecting humans, including his ex-wife and her husband. Getting his sons out of town is the only way to ensure their survival, and Kahn’s plan for the survival of the species means that he has to get to Nevada and pronto. Since the film starts with a fiery comet headed to Earth, it appears that Kahn may be on to something, although his behavior does become increasingly erratic, irrational and dangerous to his two young sons as the journey proceeds.
At this point, writer/director Michael Pearce wants his audience to actively question whether Kahn’s fears of alien invasion are well-founded or if he’s suffering from an overwhelming delusion that is putting himself and his children at significant risk. Unfortunately, the question of Kahn’s sanity is a flimsy narrative hook since there’s really no doubt from the start of the movie. It’s a weak mystery and impossible to take seriously because Pearce himself doesn’t seem to take it very seriously; it’s a distraction rather than a legitimate narrative element. When a movie’s hook dies on the vine like that, what remains had better be pretty compelling.
The results on this count are a mixed bag. On the plus side, Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada are remarkable as Kahn’s two young sons. Their performances as at-risk little boys who nevertheless want to trust, believe and love their father are absolutely authentic. Riz Ahmed, so effective last year in “Sound of Metal,” is given less to do here, and his performance is disappointingly one-note. He’s certainly charismatic and intense, but the character only has two gears (frantic and tender), and that grows redundant and tiresome before too long. That fault likely lies with Pearce’s screenplay, which, although event-filled, is disappointingly narrow.
The truth of the matter is that “Encounter” doesn’t have much to say about PTSD that other films haven’t said before and better. The sci-fi hook is an interesting idea, but it doesn’t really pay dividends, and it feels like Pearce realized as much halfway through shooting and simply decided to ditch it. I suppose a reminder about the very real and horrific effects of PTSD is always good to have, but this is a piece of storytelling, not a newspaper article. And as a piece of fiction, the affecting performances of its child actors can’t outweigh a story that is decidedly half-baked.
Jed Blaugrund is an English teacher at West Ranch High School, and a resident of Stevenson Ranch. Before becoming a teacher, he graduated from the USC School of Cinema/Television and worked for more than 20 years in the film business.