Encounter is more of a promising indication of things to come from rising star Riz Ahmed and British director Michael Pearce than a satisfying work in its own right. A not-entirely-felicitous combination of family melodrama and sci-fi bug invasion, the roots of this Amazon feature stretch straight back to the paranoia-saturated fantastical thrillers of the 1950s, albeit with more realistic effects, violence and profanity. If only the filmmakers had kept the running time down to the 94 minutes of one of its principal progenitors, the 1954 sci-fi drive-in classic Them! — in which the enemy consisted of nuclear-enlarged ants — they might have had a real winner.
As in the many mostly low-budget alien-scare programmers of the A-bomb era, the unwelcome otherworldly visitors here would appear to be the product of some malfeasance created by humankind itself (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which ran just 80 minutes, is another obvious touchstone). Arriving by meteor, the rocks produce spores, which in turn spawn bugs that penetrate human flesh to reach the bloodstream, from which there is no recovering.
Wouldn’t you know that Marine Corps vet Malik Kahn (Ahmed) doesn’t want his two young boys to become bug food, so it’s not long before the muscular and pissed-off dude swoops down, rescues the kids from their mom and her new boyfriend and sets off on a crazy nocturnal race across the Arizona desert. This involves not only battling the bugs themselves but the military goons who are under orders to halt this cross-country chase. And who knows how many of these young soldiers have already succumbed to the bloodsuckers’ bites?
As long as the film sticks to the literal straight and narrow, it’s in reasonably decent shape. Pearce, whose 2017 debut feature Beast also focused on young people in jeopardy, has a good feel for building tense and chaotic situations, and his actors carve out well-defined characterizations while slamming down desert highways in the middle of the night.
But once Malik’s parole officer Hattie (the formidable Octavia Spencer) moves front and center, things go off track and soon become exasperating. It wouldn’t be fair to give away what transpires in the film’s second half, but the latter-going is a slog, and by the 90-minute mark one has had more than enough. The excitement and good will so effectively built up in the first hour are distressingly dissipated thereafter; given the material, the film is 20 minutes too long for its own good, a programmer artificially inflated to grade-A status.
The ever-resourceful Ahmed is fully convincing as a veteran military hard-ass and deeply caring father here driven to a wall of desperation and perhaps not always wise in his decisions. The boys are engagingly played by Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada.
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