Review: Riz Ahmed drama ‘Encounter’ doesn’t get close enough

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The Los Angeles Times is committed to reviewing new theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries inherent risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials. We will continue to note the various ways readers can see each new film, including drive-in theaters in the Southland and VOD/streaming options when available.

Riz Ahmed plays a father trying to save his kids from an alien invasion in “Encounter.” The kids, through no fault of their own, are in another movie altogether.

Former Marine Staff Sgt. Malik Khan (Ahmed) shows up where his sons live with his ex and her new husband and takes the kids on a sudden road trip. He tells them that alien parasites are taking over human bodies, including Mom’s. The boys are 8 and 10 and haven’t seen Dad in two years, so they are understandably willing to go along. But as complications mount, Dad will either be proved a hero … or something else.

“Encounter” has its moments, but it suffers from multiple storytelling approaches that don’t mesh. The narrative starts with Malik, in his psyche, then switches to older son Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan), then moves around with no real point of view. The truth is apparent early on (which this review will nonetheless wanly attempt to preserve), but the film continues to be split between drama (Jay’s point of view) and sci-fi thriller (Malik’s POV) anyway. The film flies near social commentary — some pseudo-antagonists are Three Percenters — but shies from delving into such characters. It’s also a father-and-sons road trip movie and sometimes a coming-of-age story, in which modes it’s most successful, thanks to lovely performances by the kids. When it finally commits to one storytelling approach, it’s too late.

To be clear: Mixing genres, especially in unexpected ways — thumbs up. Straddling them without a solid perspective — thumbs wiggling sideways (much trickier to accomplish successfully, and arguably not done here).

Writer-co-director Michael Pearce and co-writer Joe Barton try to keep both sci-fi thriller and drama threads alive even after the gag becomes obvious. The film’s heavy-handed cinematic devices — use of score, visual effects, etc. — keep it awkwardly holding a balance point that isn’t compelling. If, for instance, the entire story had come through Jay’s perspective, it might have evolved from one genre to the other, rather than dragging both along simultaneously. But that would be a different film.

In this one, the boys (Chauhan and Aditya Geddada) really are quite good. It’s easy to root for them. Chauhan is sympathetic throughout as he begins to understand what’s really happening, and the irresistibly cute Geddada has a particularly touching moment in which he stands up to an adult to protect his brother. The always-welcome Octavia Spencer is underused in a role that isn’t explored.

Ahmed (flat-out brilliant in last year’s “Sound of Metal”) is fine, but one can’t help but feel that there’s money left on the table in his portrayal of a desperate dad who’s either a hero or dangerously delusional. And that, again, has mostly to do with the film’s decision to not pick a perspective, seemingly to have it both ways. The actor generates appealing rapport with his two young co-stars. We buy them as a family. He also handles the action beats well.

Despite its tonal seriousness, “Encounter” ironically misses the mark by not going deep enough — in either of its dueling approaches.

‘Encounter’

Rated: R for language and some violence

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: In limited release Dec. 3; Streaming on Amazon Prime on Dec. 10





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