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ALPHA (2018) review

August 20, 2018

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written by: Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt and Albert Hughes
produced by: Albert Hughes and Andrew Rona
directed by: Albert Hughes
rated: PG-13 (for some intense peril)
runtime: 96 min.
U.S. release date: August 17, 2018

 

As a sucker for for stories involving wilderness survival and “a boy and his dog” tales, “Alpha” easily falls into my wheelhouse. This coming-of-age yarn set in the prehistoric/Ice Age era is indeed a variation of both of those and it’s also the first solo outing for director Albert Hughes, a guy who’s previously made his mark in moviemaking with his twin brother, Allen Hughes with movies such as “Menace II Society” and “The Book of Eli”. While Allen helmed last year’s 4-part HBO documentary “The Defiant Ones”, Albert went way way back in time for his endeavor, co-writing a screenplay with Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt that’s pretty straightforward, while proposing the origin for the love that humans have for canines. That’s an intriguing proposal right there and it turns out the end result is something visually captivating and ultimately surprisingly contemplative. 

The film opens with text that establishes a time and a place – it’s 20,000 years ago in a precarious and rugged landscape which would come to be known as Europe (think Upper Paleolithic period, if you need specifics) – and this is when we’re introduced to a tribe of humans during a pivotal time for the young man. It is time for their first hunt, but first they must pass a test and go through initiation before only a select few will accompany the seasoned men on a precarious bison hunting excursion that will test their mettle. Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) is relieved and proud to see his teenage son, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), become a candidate for such a journey. Despite the trepidation of his mother, Rho (Natassia Malthe), the frightened and unsure teen is eager to please his father and participate in an honorary rite of passage.

 

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All of this is takes place within the first fifteen or so minutes of the film and right away it’s clear the screenplay is checking boxes off a list of coming-of-age tropes. Some of that is tolerable, if you keep in mind a movie can always be someone’s first exposure to such conventions, but most viewers will find emphasis on a worried mother expressing concern to her husband for their child’s safety a little on-the-nose or the moment when a mini map of the stars (the constellation kind, not the ones in Hollywood) is drawn on the boy’s right hand – so he can hold it up to the stars and align it with the Big Dipper in order to find his way back home – is heavy on the foreboding. There’s also a typical scene where Tau’s tribe encounter another tribe and while there is a hint of a threat when the camera focuses on the other tribe’s intense leader,  Xi (Jens Hultén), the two leaders quickly embrace, indicating a supposed longstanding friendship between the two. We also see and hear a pack of howling wolves that keep a watchful distance from the hunters, yet we know they will factor in later. As predictable as these scenes are early on (and inevitably throughout), there is an undeniable earnestness to the performances and production of it all.

While the story meets certain expectations, the threats and elements are still thrilling and absorbing. It becomes quite clear just how dangerous this traditional expedition is when a teen sitting next to Keda at a campfire is swiftly snatched by a sabretooth feline, taken into the night to be heard and never seen again. Again, we’ve seen scenes like these before, but the actors who play the shocked surviving characters sell it, reiterating how loss can come with the blink of an eye. Tau will feel this loss when an epic encounter between his tribe and a herd of bison atop an immense butte goes awry, leaving Keda left for dead on the side of a cliff. Jóhannesson nails the emotional scene where he lays out a memorial at the place where his son was last scene, exuding an immense feeling of failure and grief, yet knowing he still has people to lead.

Of course, his boy is not dead or there’d be no story here. Injured, passed out and stranded on the side of a cliff, with still quite a ways above a ravine. Here’s where the movie gets intriguing. We know this will be “a boy and his dog” survival movie, but the curiosity is in how this will all play out and what this boy will have to endure in order to survive. Immediately, it becomes clear we’re going to see some different things here. For example, how Keda gains consciousness and gets off the side of the cliff are scenes that are quite memorable. What viewers will undeniably take note of at this point (if they haven’t already) are the striking camerawork choices Hughes and his cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (“Tehran Taboo” and “Goodnight Mommy”). They go out of their way to capture the gravity of the perilous situation Keda is in, from aerial shots that show dizzying depth perception to close-up shots that bring us in on the boy’s fear, pain and determination. Despite some questionable and failing narrative destructions, at no point is the film not striking visually, offering a poet appreciation for the elements and delivering a palpable sense of suspense.

 

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As Keda embarks on his arduous journey home, knowing full well he’s doomed if he doesn’t make it back before the start of winter, he is joined by a single wolf. How exactly this happens occurs in a thrilling sequence that ends with a display of compassion from Keda. Although their first encounter was an altercation, resulting in Keda injuring the wolf in self-defense, the lone wolf (played by a Czech wolfdog named Chuck) becomes attached to Keda after he cares for its wounds. What follows is typical trepidation as the two figure each other out, eventually graduation from contentious to a bond of brotherhood, as the two navigate a landscape that has its share of survival challenges.

Of course, we know that the movie is not going to end with these two stranded out in the open, away from Keda’s family. The reunion we anticipate will indeed occur. It’s all about their journey together. We watch as the new pair – Keda names it Alpha (note: the entire film is appropriately subtitled) – protect each other from predators and struggle with the extreme elements and survival needs, all in the name of the proposed first bond between man and canine. There’s certainly enough for me to get on board with “Alpha”, predictable or not.

The movie is at its best when focusing on presenting the wilderness survival aspect and the bond between the two characters in a unique visual manner. At its worst, the narrative structure is kind of repetitive – not of previous movies with similar stories, but of itself. The first five minutes of the movie are striking and then its interrupted by a time jump that gives us a  “one week earlier” backstory. We just started, so there’s no need to play catch-up. The screenwriters here do that gain shortly after we’re caught up with real time where he essentially shows us a greatest hits collection of the hunt sequence. No need. The one aspect of the story that is completely unpredictable is an element of its ending that is served up as a surprise. I’m not sure I truly buy it, but I commend them from never eluding to one key instrumental nugget pertaining to one of the main characters that would truly sell that aspect of the ending.

Still, the scale and scope of  “Alpha” is impressive. To be honest, I didn’t necessarily expect a really compelling screenplay here. Sure, it hits many predictable beats, but they are actually beats I’ve missed on the big-screen. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Keda and Alpha develop trust for each other and eventually form a true bond. As a nervous and unsure of himself teen, Smit-McPhee does a fine job and seeing him being forced to persevere and move forward in order to live was quite believable.

Is “Alpha” a family film? Yes, but maybe not one for all-ages. It’s not reminiscent of “The Revenant”, but not as gruesome and intense. It’s more along the lines of  “Never Cry Wolf” and “Quest for Fire”, two solid forgotten adventure movies from the 80s that also have the bond between man and canine and also follow humans set during the Ice Age, respectively. There’s an odd comfort in knowing how such a movie will play out, primarily because there’s an absence of wilderness family survival movies being made. They’re the kind I grew up, so there’s a certain nostalgia that Hughes brings to the story, while having today’s technology to differentiate itself from the movies of this genre from the past.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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