[Screen It]


(2021) (Riz Ahmed, Lucian-River Chauhan) (R)

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Dramatic Thriller: A former Marine takes his two young kids on a road trip under the belief that he's protecting them from non-terrestrial microorganisms that have infected the planet.

Malik Khan (RIZ AHMED) is a 38-year-old former Marine who hasn't seen his two boys -- 10-year-old Jay (LUCIAN-RIVER CHAUHAN) and his younger brother, Bobby (ADITYA GEDDADA) -- for the past two years, with his story being that he's been engaged in top-secret work. He's now shown up in the middle of the night and rushes them away in his car, stating that he's taking them to a military base to protect them from non-terrestrial microorganisms that have infected half of the world's population, including the boys' mother.

Theybelieve him as they travel through mostly deserted parts of the western U.S., but we then learn that the truth is something different when his parole officer, Hattie Hayes (OCTAVIA SPENCER), wonders where he is, and FBI agent Shepard West (RORY COCHRANE) shows up claiming Malik has kidnapped the boys after binding and gagging their mother and stepfather. As Malik becomes increasingly paranoid about those microorganisms and his paternal instinct to protect his boys, others worry about their safety.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10

While the common advice about life is to focus on the big picture rather than the small things, sometimes it's the latter that demands our attention. If anything, our ongoing pandemic proves that point, with an invisible to the eye virus killing millions and otherwise disrupting the rest of our lives as we knew them before the outbreak.

Of course, while Earthbound viruses and other pathogens are always a concern, something similar arriving from outer space likely keeps some scientists and others in the know up at night (or at least sleeping with one eye or ear open). And that's because of all the various unknowns such an extraterrestrial organism could bring to Earth riding on the coattails of some far-flung meteorite.

That's the idea behind "Encounter" where the opening shows such a not-so-heavenly visitor bringing along some undesirables for the ride that fall to the Earth, get eaten by or absorbed into insects, and eventually make their way into their unwitting human hosts.

For Marine veteran Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed), that's been his focus the past few years and now that he's finally able to make it to his two boys -- 10-year-old Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and his younger bro Bobby (Aditya Geddada) -- he whisks them away from home, believing their mother and likely their stepfather are among those already infected.

He tells the boys they're off for a secret military base for their safety, and as kids that age will do -- especially if their dad has been out fighting the good fight for years -- they believe every word he says. As do we, based on everything we've seen up to that point courtesy of writer/director Michael Pearce and co-writer Joe Barton.

But then things begin to leak out, such as Malik's parole officer (Octavia Spencer, not given much to do in the part) wondering where he is and then FBI agent Shepard West (Rory Cochrane) being concerned after finding the boy's mom and stepdad bound and gagged (and not to keep any alien critters from spreading). All to the point that we realize we were sort of hoodwinked -- or, more politely, creatively diverted -- from the beginning.

Personally, and from an artistic standpoint, I would have preferred that things might have remained nebulous for as long as possible, just to keep viewers on their toes and uncertain of what was really transpiring. Perhaps Pearce and Barton realized that people would likely figure out the "twist" long before it arrived and thus stuck with the earlier revelation. Whatever the case, that does allow for the flick to focus on the real issue at hand -- mental health and PTSD.

And with the FBI worried that Malik has turned into a "family annihilator" and with the protagonist seeing things that aren't real as the world closes in on him, the road trip meets search and rescue tale takes on new significance. It certainly evokes emotional engagement from us, what with Ahmed and the young performers playing his boys making for a believable trio we care about. And in the end, it's that smaller-scale story where the focus goes and that's a good thing. Not perfect, but certainly watchable, "Encounter" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed November 29, 2021 / Posted December 3, 2021

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