‘…feels like the mashed-potato scene from Close Encounters dragged out to feature length…’

There’s few things more annoying than the cinematic bait and switch; setting up the idea of one movie in the minds of an audience, then delivering something else. Sometimes it’s because film-makers or studios change their minds, or sometimes the product doesn’t fit the marketplace; delivering a trailer for Sweeney Todd that provided no hint the film was a musical would be an example. Michael Pearce’s Encounter, streaming as of last month on Amazon Prime in the US and UK, suffers from being sold as something it’s not; it looks like an intense, thoughtful sci-fi drama like Arrival, but actually, it’s more of a story of stress-shredding mental breakdown, and that’s a switch that’s sure to frustrate punters.

Amazon had some awards traction with a Riz Ahmed vehicle last December with the US debut of The Sound of Metal, and Ahmed is a compelling presence again here as tortured ex-Marine Malik Khan. Khan is estranged from his two boys, but he starts imagining that there are mind-controlling insects everywhere, and decides to kidnap his kids and go on the run. As the mites cower in the back seat, Khan explains that over half the world’s population may have been taken over by this alien enemy, but his immediate obstacles include a dedicated parole-officer (Octavia Spencer) who believes that Khan has succumbed to some form of psychosis and is actually living out some kind of conspiracy theory fantasy….

There’s an of-the-moment film to be made right now about need for de-programming; with collapsing trust in all forms of media having led to a world where large swathes of the population have been led to believe extreme nonsense fed by mouthpieces motivated to cause internal chaos. But Encounter went into production long before the pandemic, and the result is a film that feels overtaken by events. Khan fears ’bugs’, but Peace makes the mistake of tipping off the viewer about Khan’s visions being real when they’re not; we see strange droplets forming within the eyes of a traffic cop that pulls the fugitive over, but that turns out to be Khan’s imagination. Encounter promises an alien adventure, then reveals that we’re seeing Khan’s deluded reality, and that the events we’re supposedly watching aren’t happening at all….

…which turns out to be something of a bummer for all concerned. Encounter plays a little like Michael Tolkin’s 1991 drama The Rapture, with concerned parents rescuing children from an imminent apocalypse, but Pearce doesn’t stick the landing aside from an ingenious overhead shot of a desert pursuit in which the cars look like the bugs the Khan constantly sees circling. Of course, the disinformation discourse existed long before the pandemic began, but it’s already a life of death matter without the exaggerations featured in Encounter, which feels like the mashed-potato scene from Close Encounters dragged out to feature length and then revealed to be a dream or a hallucination. A bummer indeed.


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  1. I did try to watch this flick…thought it might be a bit like Kafka’s Metamorphosis but for the 21stc??? It wasn’t, although I felt a bit buggy hours after I stopped watching. Didn’t Ashley Judd star in a film called Bugs? They were real thanks to a bit of Gov’t programming… I like your comparison to The Rapture, which IMO was equally awful. Always amazed how well you objectively nail and cut to the core of a film…

    • Thanks! I’m not keen on cockroaches and the like, killed a few whoppers in my time. Back of the shoe and wallop! I think The Rapture was better than this, but it’s a well forgotten film now. This one just ends up like a bad Twilight Zone with a non-satisfying non-twist ending. Better things to come!

    • Cheeky! Got Operation Mincemeat, The Tender Bar, Sing 2, Nightmare Alley, Belfast, Cyrano, all coming this month. Bang up to date. Are they still making Charlie Chan films?

    • Yes, you can take this one as a personal break, I had to watch it for awards jury stuff, but you’ll have a mountain of better films to look at…

  2. Bummer indeed, I was looking forward to AHmed in an alien bug movie, not a psychosis ridden marine movie so I’ll pass this and go for Don’t Look Up.

    I have danced the mashed potato, and the fuzzy duck slide.

    • He’s good, and I get they’re trying to show that we can’t live in a sci-if fantasy, but it makes for a frustrating watch.

      I’ve done the Alley Cat and The Slosh, have you got them over the border?

    • Ahmed is good, I’m a fan, but I wish I’d gone into this knowing it wasn’t actual sci-fi…if cE3K ended with Dreyfuss walking up to find it was all a dream, that would have the same numbing effect…

      A punter is a customer, a walk-up. fffffaaact!

      I have not danced the mashed potato and there is no link to the video of this event, which is private.

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