2005 film adaptation of War of the Worlds is an example of combining complicated family dynamics with an extraterrestrial, end of the world threat. What better time to sort out strained parent-child conflict than under the stress of planet earth being invaded? Sci-fi and drama themes can work off each other because they invoke the same feelings of urgency. Not only do we have to find ways to survive for a possible future, but there’s also a ticking clock to sort out any grievances. Encounter presents itself as a poker player; it knows that it might have a winning hand, but tries not to show the other players (in this case, the audience). Director-writer Michael Pearce begins the film at a minor level – displaying something from outer space entering our atmosphere and a food chain of bugs, bites, and manipulation of a molecular level.
Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) wakes up in a hotel room in the middle of nowhere – reaching for his bug spray to flood any oncoming flies that might go through a crack in the wall. We get a glimpse of classified files that scantily mention microorganisms that invade their host and take control–almost like something straight out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Pierce and co-writer Joe Barton place the story inside the endless desert of Nevada to invoke an Area 51 desolate land feel. Jed Kurzel’s score and Benjamin Kracun’s shot selection don’t allow you to forget – both combining to make things feel like a bottomless pit of creepy crawlers. Stares from random townspeople in the film’s first half will lead to you believing more minor powers are at work. The thing is, Malik hasn’t seen his two sons, Jay and Bobby (Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada), in two years, was dishonorably discharged from the Marines for assault, served time, and lost his wife, Piya (Janina Gavankar). Compounded with this “secret mission” that he is on, Malik faces many problems. All that matters to him is saving his sons from an ongoing invasion.
The sci-fi premise in Encounter gets abandoned relatively quickly. As the film goes on, hints of what the film presents itself are still there, but it’s more so a family drama. Pearce has us spend a lot of time with Malik, Jay, and Bobby, trying to reconnect under duress. The acting between the three makes it work. Bobby is a bit more reluctant because he has bonded with his stepfather Dylan (Misha Collins), but Jay still looks at his father as a hero figure. It’s why he takes everything he says at face value. There are natural conversations that take place concerning the taste in music. Malik elects for heavy metal like Slayer, while the boys would rather hear Selena Gomez. While they are on the road, Pierce also selects to build another side story where the science fiction layer further dissipates.
Hattie (Octavia Spencer), Malik’s parole officer, is determined to see the good in him no matter what circumstances are presented. She recognizes that war battles have shaped Malik not to see the world clearly. FBI agent Shepard West (Rory Cochrane) sees Malik as fitting a possible murderous profile. He’s not looking at this situation from an empathetic view – there’s one aim, and that’s to get the kids back safely. What Encounter really is about is how things like PTSD and excessive loss can leave people walking in the wilderness to where they believe the impossible is happening. What do we do with that, and when it puts other people in danger, how do you help those who need it?
As Malik’s mental state further becomes hysterical, the film tries to uphold its alien premise. However, it doesn’t need to. The magician has already told us how the trick gets done. Instead, Encounter finds its footing in an emotional center of a father trying to make up for lost time, albeit not in the more perfect ways. There’s a lot of destruction left in the path of the sand-covered highways they travel upon. Jay, in particular, is expected to grow up quickly, discarding his ten-year-old glee. Is it fair? No. Especially if it’s under false pretenses. As his father loses all hope, Jay acts as a pillar of young wisdom to ground him.
Perhaps Pearce didn’t mean alien invasions in the literal sense, but only as an inference to situations that we go through to render us as unrecognizable shells to those we love. If that’s the case, there’s something more to offer than your escape-from-the-calamity narrative.
Photo Credit: Amazon Studios