TIFF ’21 – The Real Threat in Michael Pearce ‘Encounter’ is Cliché

Still from Encounter. Riz Ahmed as Malik stands in the desert, in a fighting stance, with his two young sons standing either side of him. They are both holding up long stick as imaginary weapons - propped up in front of them like rifles.
Image Courtesy of: TIFF

In British director Michael Pearce’s buzzy new film Encounter, the real threat is not the long arm of the law, an alien invasion or loss of a loved one, but the threat of total apathy via cliché. Riz Ahmed (fresh off the back of his stunning work in Sound of Metal) plays Malik Khan, an ex-Marine with a murky past who believes that ‘non-terrestrial microorganisms’, in the guise of insects, are using human bodies as hosts to enact their malign wish for world domination. In a bid to ‘rescue’ his estranged sons from this parasitic menace, Malik kidnaps them and embarks on a convoluted road trip across Nevada, in the hope of reaching a hostile-free basecamp.  If only Pearce had stuck with this rousing, if not well-trodden narrative. Instead, Encounter goes on to suffer from a bad case of over-stuffing, in which the charm of a steadfast storyline is unpicked and weakened by lacklustre writing and derivative devices.

As it turns out, Malik’s fears are not entirely founded in accuracy, and his rescue mission soon adopts a different kind of peril. Along the way, we encounter (sorry) an almost overwhelming quantity of cliché. There’s the sinister highway cop, the vulgar, gum-smacking FBI agent, the shabby-but-likeable cop and perhaps most tiresome of all, the homogeneous oddity and baseness of White Middle America. Almost everyone we happen upon is an overweight, grotesque, mouth-breathing archetype of remote Uh-Murica. At one particularly low point, a grizzly gas-station clerk actually says ‘what can I do you for?’. Don’t we deserve a more nuanced depiction of modern America? A more considered, intelligent portrait of otherness and threat?

Had this been a film that understood the beauty of picking one theme and crafting a story from it, the overblown aesthetic might have made for a nice interpretation of the immigrant experience in white America – a kind of Get Out for the American-Pakistani community. As it is, Pearce’s hackneyed portrayal of disenfranchised communities only distracts from the intended drama of Malik’s mission.

Aesthetically, the film also fails to land a blow. The scenes of Malik and his sons driving across the desert (of which there are many) are shot like a Volvo advert – replete with distilled colours, copious amounts of up-lit dust, and swooping angles that manage to simultaneously distance us from the action while reminding us of the painful artifice of the narrative. Now might be a good time to draw comparison to another dystopian journey immortalised in cinema – and no, it’s not The Road. Alfonso Cuarón’s explosive dystopian thriller Children of Men (2006), is everything Encounter aspired to and ultimately failed to be. Though the perceived peril in Encounter is distinct from the widespread chaos in Children of Men, it is the pervasive and consuming atmosphere of dread in the latter that elevates Cuarón’s film to such heights. 

Unfortunately, Pearce doesn’t manage to replicate, or even come close to this haunting atmosphere in Encounter, where the audience remains at arms length from the action, both narratively (Malik is an unreliable narrator in the extreme) and formally – with the glossy campaign-style aspects of the film desperately trying to sells us something we don’t want.

Between the contrived notions of flawed fatherhood that Malik falls prey to (‘you got hair on your pecker yet?’) and the derivative production design of the film, Pearce’s Encounter fails to tell us anything new about the genre. Perhaps more criminally, when the major plot twist occurs, we’ve either already guessed the outcome, or else, are too apathetic to care. 

The film ends with a chase scene in the desert, which is in many ways, the icing on the cake for a film that unapologetically courts cliché while failing to either subvert it, or assert it with style. It is surely a disappointing second film from the director that brought us 2017’s sultry thriller Beast, and one probably best forgotten.

Encounter screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival

by Lydia Rostant

Lydia Rostant is a 22 year old writer who’s lived in Manchester for the past four years. Her cinematic interests include (but are not limited to): women in film, women being bad in film, food in films, weird snacks that symbolise something else (a hot is never just a hot dog … or however the saying goes), great soundtracks in films, characters singing in their cars, tracking shots that start with the feet and work upwards, films about drop-out music geeks that pretend to be teachers in order to live out their fantasy at a local rock gig (yes, School of Rock is in her top 5).You can read her work on her blog: https://thepristineinnerexperience.wordpress.com 
Twitter: @LydiaRostant

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