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In us or among us?

The film Encounter constantly plays with perception, both of the characters and the audience, culminating in a harrowing climax that affirms that, even in doubt, we can be sure of God’s love and grace.

(Image: Amazon Studios)

MPAA Rating: R
USCCB Rating, Not rated at the time of this review
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5 reels

(Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers.)

Everything in the marketing of Encounter suggests it is a classic work of science fiction—specifically, an invasion of mind-controlling alien microbes—and the first five minutes all but confirms that premise. However, doubts about this assumption mount quickly, and soon it appears our protagonist may be the source of his own undoing. Encounter, in other words, constantly plays with perception, both of the characters and the audience, culminating in a harrowing climax that affirms that, even in doubt, we can be sure of God’s love and grace.

Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) is a former Marine who, like so many veterans, finds civilian life difficult. He spends time in prison for minor crimes, bounces around job to job, and shares limited custody of his children with his ex-wife and her new husband. One night, he shows up randomly in the room of his two boys—Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada)—and announces they are leaving immediately on a fun road trip.

Bobby, about five years old, is excited but his old brother, probably about ten, senses something isn’t right. As they drive for hours through the Nevada desert, Malik’s behavior is troubling. He actively avoids being seen and refuses to tell the kids their destination. When he assaults a police officer at a routine stop, Malik reveals his true intentions. He has discovered that a race of extraterrestrial beings has infected the world population and are controlling their actions. He believes there is a haven near Groom Lake (think Area 51). “Why isn’t mom coming,” Bobby inquires. “Because she’s infected,” Malik says soberly, “but we’re going to help her.”

As the film progresses, however, there are more and more holes in Malik’s story. One night, Malik points out several meteors shooting across the sky. “It’s so beautiful,” Malik remarks, but Jay looks up and sees nothing. Soon it becomes clear that Malik is not only delusional but dangerous. Here, the film takes an interesting turn. We are still rooting for Malik to succeed but in a different manner, not by conquering the aliens from without but subduing the demons from within.

As a father, it’s easy to identify with Malik’s misguided zeal. I have two boys and would do anything to protect them from an outside threat. At the same time, Malik’s mental illness could lead to tragedy. “He didn’t pack any clothes or food,” an FBI agent tells Malik’s parole officer Hattie (Octavia Spencer). “He’s going to take them out to desert, kill them, and then kill himself.” “No,” she insists. “He’s not like that.”

Jay seems to realize the gravity of the situation. He claims to believe his father yet also finds subtle ways to attract attention in the hopes of rescue. Mailk also begins to wonder if the things he perceives are real. When confronted with proof of his delusion, he finds a way to leave his kids in the hands of the police while trying to get away safely. This demonstrates he really does want to do what’s right, even if his mind is telling him otherwise. The brain is a complex organ and is of course susceptible to error; but it is Malik’s love for his children that proves to be the road to truth.

Encounter is also an intelligent mediation on violence and the use of force. Several times Malik must subdue a perceived threat but shows remarkable restraint, using only the force that necessary to get away. Even in his delusional state, he recognizes these men are only acting under the influence of the aliens inside them. While not true physically, there is much truth to this on a spiritual level. While the Church has always asserted the right to self-defense, even until “the lethal blow” (CCC 2263), it also reminds us that our real enemies are “not flesh, but wickedness in heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

There are multiple shoot-outs and, based on common film tropes, it is a given that Malik, the boys, or some combination would be killed. By the end, however, the boys are found safely, and even Malik himself surrenders. If both the authorities and the perpetrators are willing to see good in one another, Waco need not always be the result.

Thinking about Encounter days later viewing it, I reflected on my paternal role during the various social upheavals of the past year. Sometimes I think I should immediately get my kids the COVID vaccine, while other times I worry this might cause long term problems. I send my kids to school everyday fully masked, yet deep in my heart I fear this is detrimental to their physical and social development. What should a father do? Both Encounter and my faith remind me that I can draw on the wisdom of the ages, especially Scripture, the Magisterium, and those who love me. God put the rainbow in the sky to remind us that however bad a calamity might seem, He is always with us—and no power, pandemic, or oppressor can change that.


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About Nick Olszyk 174 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.

3 Comments

  1. Nick- you don’t have to live with the conflicts of masks/no masks and vaccines for the innocents. Find a state that allows you the freedom to choose.

  2. Can’t wait to miss it, but then I am not a big movie fan.
    I think the author might have some serious problems if he is even occasionally thinking of having his children vaccinated. Do some research.

  3. God is always with us. (See the last sentence.) That is evident in Christ’s instructions concerning how his disciples should pray, for example. Our Heavenly Father knows what we need even before we request anything. Yet, we are to meet with God, in private, when we seek His help. As a woman once pointed out in a Christian newspaper, prayer has two parts. We pray, and then we should listen.

    It is of extraordinary importance that Christians are given to understand that God dwells among us, and that we ought to reflect on that whenever we try to solve a problem.

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