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.