They don’t really make movies like Alpha anymore. It’s a film that has a very straightforward, predictable plot, features about three characters in total, and trusts the audience to watch a movie entirely with subtitles, when there is dialogue at all. Alpha looks like something you’d watch on an IMAX screen (you probably should go ahead and watch this film in IMAX if you can) at your local science center; a good chunk of runtime is dedicated to wide, sweeping shots of vast and gorgeous landscapes that stretch on to as far as the eye can see. This is certainly the most ambitious work of director Albert Hughes (The Book of Eli) to date, and he handles it with extreme care.
Alpha‘s journey into theaters has been a tumultuous one. Originally titled The Solutrean, the film was scheduled to release in September of last year, then was pushed back to March, then was pushed back again to September of this year. In April, it was finally decided that Alpha was to be bumped up to August, perhaps to avoid having to compete with films like The Predator. I feel like I’ve been seeing trailers for this movie for two years now. It wasn’t delayed over and over again because of any problem with the film not being finished or needing to be changed (shooting was completed as far back as May 2016), but simply for the fact that Sony Pictures didn’t really know what to do with a film like this. A companion adventure story such as this is rarely seen anymore, and its setting (Europe, 20,000 years ago) and presentation (minimal dialogue, and what there is is spoken in an unknown prehistoric language) are anything but the standard Hollywood flair. Early trailers portray the film almost exactly the way it is, but more recent ones attempt to market it as a feel-good family movie. The final trailer is bizarre, coming across as something from the 90’s advertising a Disney feature, complete with narration that’s not from a character in the movie (when was the last time you saw that in a trailer?) and a loud pop song dominating the footage. Sony really didn’t know what to do with what they had here, and it’s a shame. Alpha is nothing like its marketing makes it out to be.
Kodi Smit-McPhee (ParaNorman, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, X-Men: Apocalypse) stars as Keda, a young hunter-gatherer and son to his tribe’s leader, Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). Keda “leads with his heart, not his spear” according to his mother. He is too gentle and kind-hearted for the harsh world that he lives in, unable to even kill a wild boar. His father still believes that he’s ready to step up though, so he brings the young man with him and his hunters to take part in the Great Hunt. It goes terribly wrong. Keda, paralyzed by fear, is charged by a bison and tossed off of a cliff. His tribe has no choice but the leave him for dead, forcing Keda to have to attempt to make his way back home before winter arrives. Along the way he runs into a wolf pack, and when he injures one to defend himself, he ends up unable to finish it off, choosing instead to nurse it back to health. The two soon come to realize that they’re going to need each other if they’re going to survive, and thus forges the first bond between man and canine.
Alpha is simple, but that’s the story being told. There are no cuts back to the village showing what everyone else is up to, allowing the film to focus solely on Keda and his new wolf companion, who he names Alpha (portrayed wonderfully by Chuck the wolf-dog, who’s such a good boy), as they journey home. The two are equals; Keda has a broken ankle, Alpha has an injured leg, they both have been separated from their families. While a coming-of-age adventure story such as this could easily be made by Disney (2015’s The Good Dinosaur is incredibly similar), Alpha isn’t afraid to show just how harsh, violent, and gritty life was back in the Ice Age. It’s what gives the film an edge, and that transforms the adventure into something more akin to a survival tale. Keda and Alpha endure the elements and predators together, living off of bugs, having unsuccessful hunts for meat, and huddling together for warmth. Their journey home is long and seemingly impossible, and Hughes does solid work to make you worry for the two and continuously raises the stakes.
If you’re a dog lover, prepare to be manipulated. Alpha is the most impressive feat of the entire film, successfully delivering a wide range of emotion and realism from an animal that’s not often seen (it seems to be a combination of computer imagery, animatronic, and Chuck himself). You can’t help but root for the wolf as it and Keda go through hell and back together, and yes, it’s definitely one of those movies that makes you go “They better not kill that dog”. Alpha is a very standard story, but its unique setting, inspired and beautiful cinematography, and its boldness in not holding back from telling that story in a fresh and realistic way elevates it to a level above averageness. They don’t make movies like this anymore, so it wouldn’t hurt if you chose to support something like it. But, uh, did they have to go and slaughter actual animals to make this?
3. 5 / 5 Stars
Alpha is now playing in theaters everywhere.