The first sign that things are about to go radically wrong is Michael Pearce’s “Encounter” is a rattle. A small thrumming, really, the kind that an ordinary man in an ordinary motel might not notice. But Riz Ahmed’s Malik Khan isn’t an ordinary man — the intense actor has built his career on grand scale alarmists, aspirants, and losers, the kind of weary-eyed guys who lie awake in bed waiting for their morning alarm — so the former Marine not only hears the buzz, he leaps into action. With military precision, he seizes a Bible from the nightstand and — splat! — squashes a wasp.
One insect down. Ten quintillion to go.
No one else at the motel is on alert for an unusually aggressive infestation. Malik’s as-yet-unknown intel is that some time not too long ago, a small meteorite pinged onto the earth. This went ignored by everyone but a few barking dogs. But a parasite on that meteorite infected a cricket, who then infected a praying mantis, who then infected a whole forest of buggers before the news can make a bad pun about Beetlemania.
Except this isn’t a spectacle where an awful catastrophe is met with worse punchlines. “Encounter,” co-written by Pearce and Joe Barton, is a disaster film on the smallest scale: Ahmed’s divorced dad swooping up his young sons Jay and Bobby (Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada, both natural and terrific) away from their mother (Janina Gavankar) who’s been acting suspicious and driving them to a secure military base before the rest of America makes a run on Raid.
It’s a road movie where Malik encourages his kids to let their hair down even as he keeps the windows rolled up. He’s at once protective of their innocence, selling their escape as “a crazy road trip with your cool ass dad!” and bummed to learn they prefer KPOP to heavy metal. A symptom, he figures, of them growing up without enough of his his bro-tacular macho influence. So he uses machismo to keep them in line, promising the grade-schoolers that if they follow his rules, he’ll reward them with candy (sweet!) and free use of his gun (sure?).
Malik is the rare brand of action dad who’s focused on protecting his kids’ bodies, not their souls, the only other one of note being Tom Cruise in “War of the Worlds” who screamed at his teen son for trying to help strangers. At first, Malik’s flaws are refreshing — invigorating, even — in a genre defined by action dads like The Rock who attempt to have it all: the strength, the jokes, the heart, the audience’s devotion as though the Rock should be their dream daddy, too. Ahmed lets Malik get giggles — he insists on calling his kids “dude” — but he and Pearce want to make a realistic adventure film, not a giddy popcorn muncher. So even though Malik carries himself like he could have body doubled in “San Andreas” or “Skyscraper,” his jockish tough guy act cracks to reveal an unsteadier man. Someone more human than a hero — and someone you might not want by your side unless you’re sure you’re fighting the same thing.
The kids get hungrier. Their smiles begin to drain. And there’s the continual threat that an ignorant cop might pull over the car and not take kindly to Malik’s itch to see if there’s worms wriggling in his retinas.
The truth is, every movie is an act of trust not much different than Malik telling the boys they’re going to play a game called “Get in the Car as Fast as Humanly Possible.” We in the audience put ourselves in the backseat while the director takes the wheel. We believe what they tell us to believe: that the Rock can save the planet, that a rom-com couple will live happily ever after, that Godzilla is 984 feet tall. This isn’t a bad thing. The movies are, in essence, a shared delusion. But in an era of, frankly, incredulous credulity where shared delusions are leaping from the screen to your aunt’s Facebook page, and gullibility is literally infectious, “Encounter” insists that skepticism is a virtue. (And that empathy is a powerful antidote.)
Alas, that last message is lugged toward the climax by Octavia Spencer in one of her recent string of thankless helper roles where she wears sensible shoes and struggles to get anyone else in the movie to hear her advice. She’s too vibrant to keep getting sidelined in these mealy little parts, and every time the film cuts away from Malik and his boys cruising past cinematographer Benjamin Kracun’s hardscrabble desert vistas (his camera is about the steadiest thing in this slippery film) we’re reminded that the movie is merely above average, not brilliant. There’s a savage little side trip that involves a rural militia.
Once “Encounter” reveals its destination, there aren’t many places for the script to go, though there’s a savage little side trip to a rural militia during which it becomes clearer that this Ahmed acting showcase is also interested in touring the American psyche, a place where, as Malik says, “Folks look normal but they’re not.”