ENCOUNTER – A Review Of The New Riz Ahmed Thriller


Riz Ahmed has emerged as a consistently dynamic and exceptional leading man. Michael Pearce’s Encounter is a thriller that showcases Ahmed in a tale of suspense, drama, and heart. The thriller builds a veritable playground for Ahmed and Pearce to construct a tense and moving film.


Encounter centers on former Marine Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) who is concerned about an alien parasite that has crashed on Earth and is invisibly infecting humans through bugs. In the middle of the night, he collects his two young sons, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada). He does not tell his estranged wife what’s going on. Malik only tells the boys he has to take them to a safe location. Then they’re off on a road trip through the American west. Gradually, Encounter forces the audience to wonder what they know for sure, and what is even real. 

The screenplay is a deft blend of two genres constructed around a moving story of a father and his sons. Visual and archetypal cues stemming from the Western setting are nods to the eponymous genre. The alien plot incorporates a heavy dose of science-fiction. Thankfully, Encounter marries the two much better than a number of past attempts. The film also allows complications far beyond the clichéd investigation of a ‘bad dad.’ Encounter has incredible empathy for every character. It treats everyone’s challenges with a sense of grace that simultaneously holds them accountable. 

Genre Hybrid

The genre hybridity of Encounter extends beyond its story. Pearce’s work with cinematographer Benjamin Kracun blurs our familiarity with the American west. Much of the second and third acts take place amidst southwest stretches of desert and mountain vistas, reminiscent of John Ford’s favored Monument Valley. These locations seem as alien as the mysterious parasites Malik raves about.

The color grade is adjusted so that the sand glows a Mars-red. Various boulders Malik and his sons run over and rest under shrink against the night sky. Pearce and Kracun seem to intentionally channel Ridley Scott and Dariusz Wolski’s approach to The Martian. They succeed in transforming one of the oldest American movie settings into an unfamiliar environment.

Notes of this hybridity are centered on Malik, bearing the adjusted iconography of an American cowboy. He wears a ballcap and carries a gun, not quite the ten-gallon cowboy hat and revolver of a cowboy. Yet, clearly in the same lineage. His quest to cross the desert and deliver his sons to safety evokes numerous American westerns. 

In addition to conducting this quest in a car instead of horseback, Encounter flips the script in terms of the villains. By putting a British-Pakistani actor in the American west, Encounter calls attention to latent and active racism at play in the area. At every turn, Malik and the boys face down vengeful looks from white Americans in diners and gas stations.

Furthermore, the only proper shootout of the film hinges on two white, assault-rifle-toting militiamen attacking Malik in a mining town outfitted to echo a classic ghost town. Pearce and company take pains to fracture one of the oldest American genres. They do it exceptionally well. 

Father and Son

The core relationship in Encounter is Malik’s relationship with his sons. Its emotional effectiveness revolves around Ahmed and Chauhan’s performances as Malik and Jay. Ahmed’s task is to sell Malik as a distant but loving father. He balances clear affection for Jay and Bobby with glimpses of the unstable man beneath.

Trauma can make even the most loving parent struggle to be there for their children. The further into Encounter we go, the more we start to question whether or not what Malik is telling his sons about the aliens holds any truth. It’s a testament to Ahmed that even as these doubts grow there is none of his fatherly devotion. 

Paired here is Chauhan’s devastatingly raw turn as Jay. It’s always risky to hang narrative stakes on a child actor, but Chauhan delivers at every turn. He builds Jay out as a sensitive budding artist, old enough to take the emotional brunt of his parent’s separation. Bobby is too young to fully conceive of it. Therefore, Chauhan carries the boys’ trauma and loss in his performance. Jay is torn between happiness for a road trip with a father and increasing concern about the circumstances. 

Together, Ahmed and Chauhan are suggestive of the best parent-child pairings in films, such as Paper Moon or The Pursuit of Happyness. This a film that is just as much about exploring their relationship, as it is the stakes that are around them. Encounter forces the audience to reckon with ideas of generational trauma foregrounded on American life all through the deeply felt and performed dynamic between these members of a fractured family.


Encounter has its disappointments (the movie criminally underused Octavia Spencer), but Pearce’s direction and the performances he elicits add up to a nonetheless exceptional film. Pearce’s film embodies the best of indie genre filmmaking where interiority wins out over careless spectacle. 

Encounter is currently playing in limited theatrical release and is on Prime Video starting December 10, 2021.

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Introduction Riz Ahmed has emerged as a consistently dynamic and exceptional leading man. Michael Pearce's Encounter is a thriller that showcases Ahmed in a tale of suspense, drama, and heart. The thriller builds a veritable playground for Ahmed and Pearce to construct a tense and moving...ENCOUNTER - A Review Of The New Riz Ahmed Thriller
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