Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review – Encounter (2021)

What would you do if you knew that aliens were real and they were planning to invade Earth and destroy us all? It’s still a far-out concept for many but that’s what cinema provides us, an answer – in some strange shape or form – as to what we would do. Independence Day, Mars Attacks, War of the Worlds et al suggested all-out war; Paul, E.T., and others told us that aliens would be friendly and want to live amongst us; while The Day The Earth Stood Still, Arrival showed aliens as messengers, sent to help us from our own pre-conceived destruction. One thing is for sure if that is, in such times, our families would be our first thought, no matter what the cost, and in Michael Pearce’s thought-provoking new film, it’s the idea of losing those we love that is prevalent above any impending apocalypse.

A decorated ex-Marine with many tours under his belt, Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) is plagued by visions and staggering information about a potential alien attack on Earth in the near future. An upsurge in extra-terrestrial activity and insect infestations have begun to take hold of the US desert and Khan believes that, if he doesn’t act quickly, the world will perish, including his two estranged sons Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada) who may, or may not, believe his story. Leaving behind their childhoods and their mother Piya (Janina Gavankar), the boys soon begin to learn the extent of the invasion but it might not be quite what they had imagined.

Fuelled by his success with 2017’s incredible Beast – which, if you haven’t had the pleasure yet, seek it out for it is wonderful – director Michael Pearce has taken his time to venture back into the world of film but carefully and methodically, he settled on Encounter. In many respects, we’re glad he did: bigger in scale and scope, it’s certainly a few galaxies away from his previous efforts and sees him paint on a much grander, and expansive canvas that brings with it both positive and negative connotations.

The film looks spectacular, visually explosive, and mesmerically beautiful. You can see the world in which he and co-writer Joe Barton (The Ritual, My Days of Mercy) are trying to create, one of wonder and possibility that teems with colour and grandeur as they weave their story of fathers and sons, redemption, acceptance, the world seen with the innocence of young eyes and, rather timely, the fate of our world. Big themes and big ideas for sure but its delicate, intricate story gets lost inside an overwrought chase thriller whose tones clash so powerfully that almost all of the emotional resonance of a father seeking to reclaim both his family and his life, is lost.

Ahmed, who has cemented his place as one of Britain’s most intriguing and exciting exports, is in superb form again here as Malik in another brooding, mesmeric and heartfelt turn but despite his valiance, as well as those of young stars Chauhan and Geddada, they too get lost in the strange tonality of the film that, despite its very best intentions and some visually stirring moments, just can’t settle on what story it wants to tell.

★★


Drama, Thriller, Sci-Fi | Cert: tbc | Toronto International Film Festival, 12 and 15 September 2021.|Dir. Michael Pearce | Riz Ahmed, Octavia Spencer, Rory Cochrane, Lucian-River Chauhan, Aditya Geddada, Janina Gavankar