Film Review – Alpha
Alpha (2018) taps into that age-old truth: dogs are man’s best friend. Who doesn’t love dogs? They’re the most affectionate of all pets, and they have the innate ability to sense what you’re feeling and to react in a comforting manner. No offense to cats or gerbils, but canines and humans have a connection unlike any other.
Written by Daniele Sebastian Widenhaupt and directed by Albert Hughes (one-half of the Hughes Brothers), the narrative attempts to track down the beginning of this relationship. We’re sent way back into the past – during the last Ice Age – where the fall of dinosaurs would make way for the emergence of mankind. We follow Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young boy learning to make his way amongst his tribe. While out hunting for bison, Keda is separated from his party and most survive on his own without the protection of his father (Johannes Haukur Johannesson). Injured and caught out in the wilderness just as the winter season approaches, Keda must race against time to make it back home before he freezes to death.
The central premise comes into play when Keda runs into a pack of wolves intent on having him for dinner. Instead, one of the wolves gets separated from its pack after suffering an injury of its own. Rather than killing the wolf, Keda chooses his better nature and nurses it back to health. And thus, the connection between man and dog is established.
That, more is less, is the entire plot of Alpha. Throughout its 96 minute runtime, we watch as Keda slowly but surely puts himself into the wolf’s good graces: caring for its wounds, giving it water and food, and even enjoying moments of play. These bits are convincing, as the chemistry between Smit-McPhee and the dog feels tangible. The performance of the wolf is a combination of what appears to be CGI and actual animal acting (the CGI is utilized during the action sequences where the safety of the dog would have been too much at risk).
The film’s title works as a two part metaphor. First, it establishes Keda as the dominant personality in the relationship. Secondly, it acts as a representation of Keda coming of age. Here is a person fresh out of adolescence, who’s had little experience being on his own. He is thrust into a situation where he must rely on his own ingenuity and will to persevere. The thought of his seeing his mother and father again drives him to push forward. For those of you that enjoyed The Revenant (2015), you’ll get similar facets here, as Keda is tossed into physical torments including but not limited to: broken limps, hypothermia, starvation and thirst. In fact, both protagonists use the body heat of an animal to protect themselves from freezing temperatures, although the scene in Alpha is far more pet friendly.
The best aspect of the film may also be its biggest weakness. Martin Gschlacht’s cinematography captures some stunning images. Large canvasses of fields, murky swamps, and harsh winter terrain are all shown with a kind of dreamy, other worldliness. The camera will occasionally take a high angle shot looking straight down on the landscapes, making it seem as though we were looking at an alien planet from a satellite telescope. Hughes makes reference to this world being caught in the middle of a transitional period. Between scenes, we are given shots of erupting volcanoes, extreme close ups of water turning into ice, and even sequences where the camera will zoom right up into the stars.
While the visual aspects work well, the production may have been too much in love with what they were getting on screen. Take away the plot – which is thin at best – and what we end up with looks like a nature documentary straight out of The Discovery Channel. Yes, the panoramas of rolling mountains and snow-covered hills are gorgeous, but having those shots repeated over and over turns the narrative into a glutton for eye candy. Even though the runtime is relatively short, the material isn’t large enough to fill it all the way in. As a result, we have constant scenes of Keda and the wolf walking in slow motion or sitting down to stare out into the lonely sky. Granted, these are all lovely, but I couldn’t help but wonder if many of these instances were meant simply as filler.
Alpha ends with a revelation that comes from left field, generating scattered laughs of disbelief within my screening. It’s an awkward punctuation to a story that had been mostly working up until that point. But let’s be honest: if you’re making up a tale about the love between humans and dogs, you’re already starting off on a good foot – or paw, so to speak.