Great things are expected of British writer-director Michael Pearce’s second feature after acclaimed 2017 psychological thriller Beast firmly stamped the debut filmmaker’s mark on the genre. Encounter is another offering in the same vein, albeit toying with an apocalyptic sci-fi narrative before dramatically changing course mid-way through. It never quite abandons its extraterrestrial enigma though. As a result of the excellent work from lead actor Riz Ahmed we venture on this tense and highly explosive journey out of sheer curiosity, to seek answers and see closure.

Ahmed plays decorated Marine veteran Malik Khan, a loyal soldier with a moral compass, but clearly in the grip of PTSD. He is also a father of two young boys, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada), who live with his ex-wife and her new partner. After witnessing a meteor shower and subsequent alien bug invasion, akin to something from Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the opening scenes, Khan rescues his sons from the impending global infestationby taking them from their beds in the dead of night on a road journey to a ‘secret’ military base where they can get more answers and wait things out.

However, Khan’s fragile mental state becomes more apparent and increasingly unsettling to eldest Jay, as the youngster tries desperately to hold onto the image of his father as the war hero, while hvaing to grow up fast on the road. Meanwhile, the boys’ abduction sparks a nationwide hunt for the trio by the authorities, with Khan’s parole officer Hattie (Octavia Spencer) representing the human face of law enforcement.

Pearce’s sensitive exploration into mental health through character Khan shows an impressive ease once more in handling psychological elements of a story. Some might be initially disappointed with the switch from sci-fi to psychological thriller, after a key scene in the desert between Malik and Jay and the suggestive film title. However, paranormal intrigue is still teased by the filmmaker. There is always a sense of what if? Perhaps Khan is right, uncover?

This ambiguity is superbly enhanced by Ahmed and his powerful, edgy performance, as his character’s assertiveness gradually disintegrates when the situation becomes more critical. Ahmed is mesmerising as he emotionally encapsulates a fluidity of vitality, playfulness, vulnerability and psychosis. With help from the supporting cast, a new picture forms of Khan and questions arise about what is reality. However, Ahmed ensures we never lose our empathy for Khan, even when the situation becomes perilous for his offspring. We still root for the soldier’s salvation.

Heartland actor Chauhan is a one to watch develop on the big screen in years to come, playing Jay with such impressive maturity beyond a 9-year-old’s years, and matching Ahmed as Khan’s screen break-down with determined resilience. Spencer as Hattie offers more limited screen-time for fans, which is understandable as a moment away from the burning intensity of the familiar trio on the run detracts from the ticking timebomb we are witnessing. While this makes sense for her character’s place in the story, we are not as convinced of her true importance to Khan in the very end in the final scene. We are far more invested in the family dynamic. Hattie’s ‘intrusion’ into the status quo feels very episodic and ‘made for television’ alongside the relentless law enforcement chase scenes.

Pearce does tackle cultural and racial pressures in modern-day America with the same aptitude as the psychological components, giving strong nods to gun advocacy and subtle questions about the nation’s Second Amendment being very much a ‘necessary to the security of a free State’. Given Khan’s mental state, this is openly addressed many times in the story and leaves the viewer with food for thought in the final scene.

Encounter may not be the implied sci-fi thriller, but its contortion of reality cleverly puts an otherwordly perspective on events, while probing post-trauma of military action. Indeed, Oscar-nominated Ahmed should be commended for this outing as yet another tortured soul in freefall as much as in Sound of Metal.