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Encounter is in UK cinemas from December 3.  

The domestic horror that those closest to us may be legitimate sources of fear underpinned Michael Pearce’s first film, the slippery, Jersey-set Beast (2017). Encounter, his follow-up, sets us up for the more visually baroque terror of alien attack with an origin sequence that propels us from outer space into an infested blood stream. But this is a sly tease from a canny director who soon twists from effects-driven sci-fi to territory that’s more grounded, sociopolitical and psychological, yet suspensefully ambiguous.

In an age of ecosystem upheaval, the fear that humanity is on the verge of extinction grips former marine Malik (Riz Ahmed) with particular urgency. He believes that extraterrestrial microorganisms, carried to Earth by a meteor shower, have made humans their hosts and are manipulating their behaviour. Desperate to save his two sons from a fast-spreading epidemic, he snatches them from his ex-wife’s California home. They embark on a road trip into Nevada, where few signs of life hang on in ghost towns left behind by dead industry. The apocalyptically arid desertscape is an evocative backdrop for a vision of a land endangered, haunted and lost.

Riz Ahmed is compelling as the father grappling with inner demons, and Lucian-River Chauhan is an impressive match for his intensity as eldest son Jay, who needs maturity beyond his years to safeguard his brother Bobby (Aditya Geddada) and negotiate the inconsistent signals that threaten to dissolve his image of his father from hero into abuser.

Malik warns his children that while folks look normal, inside they are not: citizens’ authentic selves are being erased (rather as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956). As his motives and credibility are called into doubt by an emerging past of violence and trauma, the film becomes primarily a battle not against extraterrestrial creatures, but for the prevailing point of view – a confusion around perception, with implications about who is telling the truth about power in the US today. An undercurrent of racial oppression runs throughout. Black parole officer Hattie (Octavia Spencer) is patronisingly dismissed when she claims to be a good judge of character. Malik is instantly eyed with suspicion during a routine police stop, and a gun is pulled.

This thriller’s cerebral, sleight-of-hand orientation may not deliver on its promise of cosmic import but it taps effectively a creeping unease around the gaslighting, conspiracy theories, governmental subterfuge, armed radicalisation and paranoia of an America teetering between reality and delusion.

 

Originally published: 29 November 2021