A meteor crashes into the earth somewhere that looks like Santa Clarita. There’s no shock wave of any sort, no dust clouding the sky — and even if there were, “Encounter” doesn’t seem to have invested in the sort of effects artists who could pull that off. Apparently, parasitic alien bugs have invaded the planet and infected up to half the population. It’s up to Malik (Riz Ahmed), an ex-marine, to drive through the night and rescue his children from the unaware arms of their mother and stepfather.
It all seems a bit unlikely. Malik’s kids, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada) — maybe 9 and 5 years old, respectively — are too naive to know any better. Jay spells doom to Bobby: “I think it’s like you can hear everything and see everything, but you just can’t move and you can’t speak.” A pause, then, in a very mature-sounding voice, “It’s like being a prisoner inside your own body.”
It sure does sound a lot like the sunken place, and “Encounter” is the type of movie that gives more credibility to its influences than its characters. In the beginning, it’s “Get Out” and “the walls are alive!” horror tropes, the paranoia of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and the family camaraderie of “Paris, Texas.” Malik and minions drive off into the night, and everything’s hunky-dory as long as they stay in their beat-up Jeep and douse themselves in bug spray.
Until a cop shows up and pulls them over on a desert road. The two fight, and after Malik drives off, the cop switches back on like a Terminator. “Encounter” is not as relentless as a Terminator. Malik starts to unravel, and by the time Jay calls his parole officer, Hattie (Octavia Spencer), he’s undone: Out with the sci-fi premise, in with a mental health warning.
It’s a stale trick, executed by director Michael Pearce’s sleight of hand: The first third (or so) is only from Malik’s perspective. He sees bugs in people’s eyes, and so do we. But eventually, “Encounter” opens wide and lets out a swarm of cops. They set off on an interstate manhunt — the police believe Malik might kill his boys — to the tune of the film’s vague statements about the state of American policing.
It’s not so much that the film’s points are vague as it is that they lack direction. Pearce’s work as a whole loosens after he shifts away from the hyperfocus of Malik’s perspective. Without the pressure that forced the film’s earliest bits to construct the semblance of a narrative, it meanders across the American West. Malik drives through the night across the desert, captured by Benjamin Kracun’s surprisingly effective cinematography.
Through this all, Ahmed has mustered his all to give a semblance of personality to Malik, so patently underwritten he says things such as “little man” in lieu of having a rapport with his children. There is a touching moment at the beginning where Bobby, who knew his dad for maybe three years, tells him he looks different. More of that would have been nice. Instead, “Encounter” throws the scene in our face and exploits Bobby’s childishness to insert tension when the narrative drags. He wets himself when Malik shouts at him, he runs away, he makes problems.
Without a compass to guide its way, “Encounter” gets turned around. As the authorities grow closer, and with them the threat of inhumane policing, Pearce jumps back to his influences in search of a way forward. Naturally, it becomes “Thelma & Louise” — a very, very budget version. That delectable swoop of the camera, down along the Thunderbird and up, to Thelma and Louise, finds a friend here. Except that film’s Thunderbird is replaced by a pickup truck, the ladies now a man with a scarcely written mental health crisis. For the sake of a bad movie, drive off of the cliff.