SHOULD I SEE IT?
The story of a man bonding with a dog (or wolf, in this case). As simple a lay up for a movie idea as you can get.
The scope is vast, the ambition is strong, and Kodi Smit-McPhee gives everything he has to make Alpha a movie that matters to you.
When it uses it, the film has incredible cinematography and instances of breathtaking visual effects.
Less a “Do Not See This” alert, and more just a heads up - the film is subtitled and no recognizable English is spoken at any time in the movie.
There are some jarring pick-up shots and visual effects lags that are distracting and confusing, because at times, Alpha looks fantastic. Until it doesn’t.
Extremely predictable along the way, save a clever conclusion. The film falls into a rut of monotony that it struggles to overcome.
The bond between human and canine is given a big, ambitious, CGI-rich treatment in Alpha, a survival epic set some 20,000 years in the past, in and around unnamed European mountains and terrain.
Directed by Albert Hughes, his first solo feature since splitting from twin brother and directing partner Allen (a/k/a The Hughes Brothers), this family-oriented film is an odd beast to tame. On the one hand, it has perilous adventure, a strong performance from Kodi Smit-McPhee, and an irresistible bond between man and wolf.
Also though, Alpha begs the question – who exactly is this made for?
Smit-McPhee stars as Keda, the teenage son of Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), who gets mauled by a bison, unexpectedly charging back after Tau, his hunters, and Keda, after they successfully forced dozens of other bison to sacrifice themselves off a cliff. When the animal hooks Keda and throws him in the air, he crashes down on a narrow ledge on the side of the rock face, unconscious, and presumed dead by his father.
Since Keda’s death would make for a very short movie, we know he will survive and creatively, and with copious amounts of luck and good circumstance, he finds a way to make it off of the ledge, pop his broken foot back into place, and set out to find a way to return back home.
Subtitled throughout, Hughes has his actors speaking an invented new language for the film and Smit-McPhee is run through the elements.
I’m not kidding, the kid is run through.
Along the way, Keda will endure massive heat, an ice storm, a blizzard, and a flash flood. He will be forced to swim under the ice in a frozen lake, and fend off any number of dangerous animals hoping to feast on his flesh. To his credit, Smit-McPhee is fearless throughout Alpha and he becomes a sympathetic and captivating character as he tries to come to terms with becoming someone he never quite wanted or knew he could be.
Aiding in his maturation is Alpha, the wolf, who initially presents as foe, but quickly becomes friend. And while Keda and Alpha make one formidable team, Hughes and screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt seem lost on how to make their movie seem like something more meaningful, more lasting, than just another competently made CGI-soaked survival romp.
The movie falls into a rut. Conflict leads to danger which leads to resolution, until we invent a new problem for Keda and Alpha to overcome, and then watch conflict lead to danger and an eventual resolution.
Though there is plenty of visual beauty to be found in Alpha, thanks to some gorgeous cinematography by Martin Gschlacht, there is also a confounding and rather distracting mix of live action and CGI, sometimes within the same scene.
At times, Alpha is very obviously a real animal (identified as “Chuck” in the credits and notes), while in other moments Hughes opts to insert a CGI replication of the canine. Gorgeous landscapes become replaced with some rather notable green screen work. Perhaps the target audience will not care, but we shouldn’t be paying attention to things like this when what we have come to see is a man bond with his dog. Or a wolf. Or an Alpha, as it were.
There is a good movie within Alpha, and one must applaud the ambition to tell this story, with no recognizable dialogue, for nearly 100 minutes, and without an A-list, highly ranked Q Score actor, stepping into the role. Smit-McPhee is no slouch, and man oh man, does he leave it all on the screen by the film’s conclusion.
In the final minutes, Alpha offers something of a surprise and one that instantly won over the audience I saw the film with. I have to admit, the movie keeps its secrets close to the vest, and as applause filled the theater, I grew to appreciate Alpha considerably more than I did while watching it.
And yet, I again ask who this was made for. We all love a great adventure, but this feels like more of an arthouse film than something you find at the multiplex.
However, Hughes has made a populist film that yearns to become a massive hit. Violent, and aware of its PG-13 rating, the movie is going to be too intense for young viewers who may be interested in the story. Reading subtitles for 100 minutes is not a common multiplex practice, especially for families, and the film seems to be talking out of both sides of its mouth when it comes to what it says about Keda.
Be introspective, and someone who “leads with his heart and not his spear,” as his mother describes him. However, Alpha forces Keda to become a rugged survivor, who can overcome impossible circumstances and become that warrior that makes his father proud.
I mean…get you a guy who can do both I guess?
Alpha is definitely one of the more interesting films of 2018. I’m not sure I understand everything it is going for, or even how it goes about plying its trade, but as a survivalist tale, Smit-McPhee and his canine counterpart more than hold our attention all the way through.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Natassia Malthe, Leonor Varela, Chuck.
Director: Albert Hughes
Written by: Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt (screenplay); Albert Hughes (story)
Release Date: August 17, 2018
Sony Pictures Releasing/Columbia Pictures