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The Ending of ‘Encounter’ Explained

More like the ending of ‘Encounter’ complained.
Amazon Studios
By  · Published on December 11th, 2021

Ending Explained is a recurring column in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we consider the ending of the Amazon movie Encounter. Yes, prepare for spoilers.

I don’t know the last time an ending to a movie frustrated me as much as the ending of Encounter did. The kicker is that its story shouldn’t have ended any other way. But it still dissatisfies the movie’s setup and supposed genre. And it could have played out in some way more creatively given that it’s otherwise a compelling and well-acted drama.

The Amazon original stars Riz Ahmed as Malik, a former US Marine who has been away from his kids for the last two years. He says he’s been on a secret mission, but we soon learn he was in prison and dishonorably discharged for assaulting a superior. He does, however, seem to legitimately believe Earth is being invaded by microscopic organisms who control their human hosts.

Encounter actually opens as if that were the case, within the world of the movie. We see an unidentified object plummet to Earth and its cargo infect insects, which then transmit the viral extraterrestrial worms to other insects, animals, people. It’s a very cool sequence with fantastic cinematography and visual effects. Unfortunately, it ultimately has nothing to do with the truth of the rest of the movie.

Even before the reveal that Malik is a parolee who has in fact kidnapped his own children, it’s easy to predict the guy has psychological problems and is probably delusional. Ahmed’s performance and the direction of the story by filmmaker Michael Pearce (who also co-wrote the script with Joe Barton) clash too much with the notion that this is science fiction.

For a while, though, Encounter at least sticks to a creepy sense of bugs being bad. Occasionally it cuts away to, say, cockroaches crawling out of a diner overhead light and onto the ceiling above patrons, or the sound design emphasizes buzzing or flies or other pests swirling about. Even if not alien life forms, bugs can be carrying harmful germs. In our pandemic times, that’s very relevant.

And, well, maybe a meteor has, in this story, delivered a terrible microorganism that isn’t intelligent life or anything intent on invading the planet so much as simply naturally making its way into the world. It’s still a bait-and-switch to offer no evidence that anybody, let alone those people Malik claims to be, or attacks as such, is infected or possessed.

Forget the fact that the movie starts off showing a kind of alien infiltration, though, or that Amazon is committing genre fraud by classifying Encounter as science fiction. It still plays well as a character-driven psychological drama for at least 90 minutes. And it’s still interesting to watch a paranoid guy acting as if he thinks other people are controlled by extraterrestrials.

But even that comes up short because Malik comes to the realization that he’s wrong about the aliens and is having mental problems too early and too much on his own. Suddenly, he’s seemingly simply cured of the disorder, and the ending of Encounter is just a dull, drawn-out standoff between the authorities and this sad, confused man. At least he gets some emotional closure with one of his sons.

Would the movie have been better if it stuck to the science fiction elements? Perhaps another ending for Encounter could have delivered a twist that all of the police officers were indeed possessed by alien organisms after all. But that would have been offensive to anyone who actually suffers from this sort of mental problem. And it wouldn’t have served the character as he’s been portrayed.

I guess you could also argue that maybe Malik was the one infected all along. That the microorganism exploded alien worms all over his brain, and that’s what caused him to snap and start believing everyone else is infected. Again, that seems a disservice to the science and reality of psychological disorders. Besides, there’s nothing in the ending of Encounter to back that theory up either.

Another filmmaker might have made this story work with a satisfying science-fiction conclusion. Encounter reminds me of two Jeff Nichols movies that end the way I half expected this to end. Take Shelter is similarly about a man who seems to be going crazy, only he’s ranting about the apocalypse, and (apologies for the spoiler) its ending is a little ambiguous regarding whether or not he’s right.

Then there’s Midnight Special, which like Encounter follows a father who has abducted his own son, prompting an AMBER Alert. The boy has special powers, and that’s without question, but the MacGuffin of an otherworldly location is not so certain. I won’t spoil that one for you readers, but suffice to say that it does stick the landing within the context of the story it’s telling.

If you watched Encounter expecting one thing and were disappointed by the ending, I recommend checking out those two Nichols movies. I also recommend them if you actually did enjoy Encounter to the end. It’s not a bad movie and narratively speaking its ending isn’t terrible either. It’s just frustratingly underwhelming with regards to the science fiction setup and the dramatic follow-through.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.