August is known as a dump month for cinema when studios release films they’re not really confident in with the hopes of earning back their investment by taking advantage of a slow box office. Sony’s contribution to the 2018 slate of such films is “Alpha”, a historical adventure film that actually offers a pretty neat premise: how did the canine become man’s best friend? Directed by Albert Hughes, one half of the Hughes brothers known for making movies that pander more to emotion than intellect, “Alpha” hearkens back to other similar projects with its visual style and tone and shows real investment in the premise, but is this enough to make it worth the viewing? Let’s take a closer look. This is my review of “Alpha”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Alpha” takes place 20,000 years ago in Paleolithic period Europe, during the Ice Age. Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the son of his tribe’s chief Tau (Johannes Haukur Johannesson) and is finally of age to go on the yearly bison hunt. However, Keda’s dependence on his heart rather than his natural hunting skills casts doubt over his ability to succeed his father and lead the tribe. During the hunt Keda gets cold feet and is attacked by a raging bison which throws him over a cliff leading his father and tribesmen to believe him dead. Keda survives the ordeal with an injured ankle and is attacked by a pack of wolves, one of which he injures in self-defense. Keda finds himself relating to the wolf’s plight and decides to help the animal recover. The two eventually form a tentative bond as Keda begins his trek through the approaching winter storms to his home with his newfound ally, which he names Alpha, by his side. Together the two form the first partnership between man and canine as they work together to survive.
“Alpha” doesn’t sport a very large cast. In fact, there are only a small handful of actors involved in the major story while most of the crew is relegated to the background. The ones that do get top billing however are pretty impressive. The main protagonist, Keda, is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee most known for his appearances as a younger Nightcrawler in “X-Men: Apocalypse” and a cameo in “Deadpool 2”. The story forces Smit-McPhee into the position of having to drive the entire narrative all on his own, just him and a wolf dog. If there was ever a doubt about this young actor’s capabilities “Alpha” has put them to bed. Many actors have been charged with leading a film as the sole focus of the narrative. Hell, Leonardo DiCaprio won his Oscar for doing it in “The Revenant” which is a comparable film to this adventure in many ways. While Smit-McPhee’s performance may not be Oscar worthy per say it is a powerfully committed take on a young man who must come into his own in order to survive and embraces a more sympathetic approach to his existence that is unique compared to his elders. Even in the blandest of moments Smit-McPhee keeps full control of his character and always manages to successfully portray his evolution from a scared child to a capable and scarred man who comes to appreciate his canine companion. Not only does this performance show us that Keda is capable of more than he thought, I think it accomplishes the same for the actor allowing Kodi Smit-McPhee to prove to audiences and himself that he can carry a project with emotional depth and commendable self-confidence and control.
Like I said there’s really few other big human characters in this story although Keda’s father Tau, played by Johannes Haukur Johannesson, does get some significant screen time and he too puts a lot of emotion into his portrayal of a brave, capable leader who must deal with personal loss. While he’s overshadowed by Kodi Smit-McPhee, Johannesson impressed me with his ability to emote. I truly believed the terror and shock on Tau’s face as he watched his only child get thrown over a cliff. The emotion doesn’t stop with that moment though as we see him having to rush through his closure for the sake of his tribe. Watching Tau have to come to grips with leaving his son behind and do what’s best for his people, a lesson he tried to teach his son earlier in the film, is absolutely heartbreaking even though we’re aware that the story is about his son’s return home and the two will likely be reunited in the end. Seeing him scream down the cliff side to try and get any sign of life from Keda is a pretty powerful scene and speaks to the bond of son and father. These are the kinds of performances we really needed for a movie like this because with so few actual roles it required performers to give everything in their performances especially since the film leans on a completely fabricated language and subtitles. So, having actors like Smit-McPhee and Johannesson go all out and bring out the real emotional weight of each word and moment in on the movie adds a lot to a product that could have easily fallen flat.
In addition to the acting in this film the atmosphere and visuals are just astounding. I mean honestly, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before on the big screen. The scene of Keda being thrown off the cliff alone brings back memories of “300”. Still, “Alpha” doesn’t feel like it’s using these visuals for the sake of using them. They feel appropriate to the scene and the drama of the moment. This actually make “Alpha” a strangely derivative film visually in some ways because there is some clear borrowing of styles from similar projects of the past but as I said it just feels more fitting in “Alpha”. The backdrops are absolutely gorgeous creating highly detailed and period-appropriate scenes for us to sink our teeth into while also using natural scenery and visuals like auroras, starry skies and forests we can still view for ourselves today to fully flesh out the world we’re thrown into. The camerawork has a cool artistic quality too which combines computer generated scenery with real-world nature shots to give us a full picture of an ancient Earth. We’re put right in the middle of the elements and presented with a world that feels large and intimidating. If nothing else “Alpha” can be credited as an incredibly atmospheric as it rarely skimps on the little details like geography and lighting that add to the visual wonder.
The story of “Alpha” is also very unique. I don’t recall any film ever exploring the origin of man’s best friend and while this movie is based on fantasy rather than any amount of historical reality it does touch on an idea that deserved to be explored. How did the canine become the de facto partner to human? Man can only estimate, but this cinematic interpretation of possible history makes for a fun take on that relationship as both human and canine evolve and bond over a united respect that even in the real world today sometimes supersedes the bonds we have with other human beings. While “Alpha” is not always as interesting or insightful as I think the filmmakers wanted it to be it does a fine job taking full advantage of its gimmick to give us a charming story with perfect tone to match the growing relationship of its main characters in a time where the world around them was much less forgiving. Today we see dogs as trusted pets that we take care of and who show us affection., but it’s important to realize that both humans and canines weren’t always as civil as they are now. “Alpha” is a perfect reminder that both species were once much more primitive and probably came to rely on each other in a sort of symbiotic relationship. It’s a rare original idea that is done incredible justice before the inevitable imitators try to do one better.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
While I very much enjoyed the story of “Alpha” there are times where the action just kind of stops and it feels like the writers weren’t completely sure how to extend this film to its hour-and-a-half run time. It’s a great idea with inspired visuals and a lovable growing bond between the animal and the human but as the movie played out I began to realize there’s a lot of dead space in the film and it doesn’t feel like that was on purpose. One could argue these moments were used to emphasis Keda’s struggle to survive and keep moving, but it never feels like this is the case. I mean at one point Alpha leaves Keda’s side only to be miraculously relocated only minutes later without any real progression for Keda in that small span of time. This could have been a great moment to emphasize the difficulty he has making it home without his companion by his side but instead it’s a wasted dead spot with little emotional weight or underlying significance. It just felt like a random moment to Keda to be left on his own once again with virtually nothing put into developing any emotional struggle. There are several similar moments like this littered throughout the movie that simply feel like filler. While a lot is done with the concept I simply feel like more could have been done to make this feel like a completely fleshed out story. There are too many moments where everything just stops and it feels like the writers ran out of ideas.
One major decision by the filmmakers that also bothered me was the very beginning of the film. “Alpha” makes an all too familiar mistake by starting in the middle of its first act and then backtracking. We see the bison hunt take place right away leading to Keda’s mishap, but then everything reverts back to several days before and we see how we got to that moment. This to me was a cheap storytelling decision to immediately get the audience into the action, but it does nothing when you stop the action to tell us how we got there. Why not just start at the beginning? The moment with the bison would have been so much better if we had to wait for it and had already seen the development of the relationship between father and son that plays a huge part in why this incident is supposed to be so emotionally gripping. Many movies do this kind of thing and it usually annoys me because it waters down the significance of one of the most important scenes in the film. It’s like the filmmakers don’t trust the audience to be invested enough right off the bat. What’s more we even see several moments of the opening scene play out AGAIN shot for shot when we finally get back to that moment in the story only adding to the padding used to get this film to its feature length.
“Alpha” has a lot to offer that make it worth the viewing, especially on the big screen. It’s visually stunning, very well acted, and the story is fresh and relatively new. Its major errors lie in the inability of the filmmakers and writers to sustain that quality storytelling throughout the entire run time. The bison attack, which could have served as an incredible moment, is watered down as a tool to try and bring viewers right into the film rather than providing a natural progression of the action and there are way too many dull points where it’s clear the writers weren’t really sure where to go with the story. Besides all that it’s a very watchable, entertaining and frankly really cool movie that explores the legendary bond between canine and human like never before. “Alpha” is a fine example of a very good film that would have benefited from a little more polish, more trust in the viewers to appreciate what it has to offer, and just a bit more imagination to make sure the premise was fully realized. Even with its basic issues however “Alpha” is a story worth experiencing and one that had me invested from start to finish in one form or another.