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Saturday, August 18, 2018

Alpha

Alpha is one of those rare studio movies where you can tell the studio has no idea what to do with it.  It's a minimalist adventure and survival story set 20,000 years ago in the days of Early Man.  Oh, and the entire thing is subtitled.  So, they are banking on the "boy and his dog" (or in this case, boy and his wolf) angle of the story to sell it to a family audience.  Fortunately, the film has more on its mind, and a lot to recommend.  Director Albert Hughes and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht have given us an old fashioned adventure story with some unforgettable images.

The "boy" in this story is Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), son of his tribe's Chief (Johannes Haukur Johannesson), and therefore he is expected to do great things and follow in his father's footsteps to lead his people into prosperity.  However, Keda is not as confident or as strong as his father would like.  He has trouble lighting a fire, and he cannot even finish off a wounded animal.  However, his father still believes in the boy, and takes him on a hunting expedition, which is filmed incredibly well.  The hunt ends with Keda hesitating to kill his prey (a bison), and that hesitation ends with the boy being defeated by the animal and dragged off the side of a cliff.  The father cannot reach the ledge where the unconscious Keda is lying on along the cliff's edge, and so he must mourn and leave the boy for dead.  When Keda finally awakens some time later, he must find a way down with an injured leg and nothing but fear in his heart.

How Keda gets down off that ledge, I will leave for you to discover.  As he starts to head back for home, he is attacked by a hungry wolf pack.  He climbs up a tree in order to escape, but not before seriously injuring the "Alpha" wolf of the pack.  With the Alpha injured, the other wolves leave him behind when they cannot get at Keda.  After the others are gone, Keda's sensitive nature takes over as he stares at the injured animal.  Even though it was just trying to kill him, he finds he cannot finish the creature off.  He nurses the wolf back to health, slowly gains its trust, and soon the two are inseparable as the wolf (whom Keda names Alpha) begins to follow the boy on his journey home.  Together, they will face the elements, other wild animals, and build a bond with one another.

If Alpha kind of sounds like one of those old nature or historical stories that you used to watch in Middle or High School, you're not too far off.  This is a rousing adventure story in its purest form that does not need a lot of additional characters, nor does it feel the need to distract us with a lot of unnecessary subplots.  It's a straight to the point kind of story that only detours for some out of sequence storytelling early on. (The film opens with the hunt in which Keda is injured, flashes back to the previous week where he see his life in the tribe, and then continues from there once the backstory reaches the point where we came in at the beginning.) The dialogue is minimalist, giving us only the barest information that we need.  This is probably not surprising, given that a good chunk of the film is devoted to a boy and a wolf walking together through the wilderness, and facing various dangers together. 

Still, screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt manages to make it all work by embracing the simplicity, and giving us some genuinely exciting sequences, such as when Keda is trapped under some ice, and Alpha is up above, clawing furiously to try to reach the human.  One of the braver aspects of the film (and a fact that Sony is apparently hiding in its dialogue) is not one word of English is uttered in the film.  All the dialogue is subtitled, which is welcome.  I have a hunch that this is a big part of the reason why the movie was moved from its original Spring release date earlier this year, and instead placed on a slow weekend in August, probably in the hopes that it will be overshadowed by the last few hits of the summer.  Can't hype a movie that encourages young children to read, after all.  Still, kudos for the filmmakers for taking this approach, and not having everyone speaking perfect English.

However, the main reason to watch Alpha is for its stunning imagery.  The film is being shown in IMAX in select areas, and I would imagine that this is the way to experience the film, as the wide nature shots would be spectacular in this format.  The filmmakers often take advantage of the vast open landscape where much of the story takes place, and there are even some stunning skies and shots of rolling clouds that were probably done with CG, but it is impressive and looks seamless nonetheless.  This is definitely one of those movies that will lose something if you watch it at home or on a mobile device, so definitely see it on the biggest screen possible if you can.  On the big screen, you can also admire the effects work, which flawlessly combines real animals with CG ones when necessary, to the point that it is hard to tell the difference. 

I imagine for kids 10 and older, Alpha will be perfect.  It's thrilling, it does have a bit of an edge and is not afraid to shy away from some of the harsher elements of the story, and it's heartwarming to see the boy and wolf bond during the course of the adventure.  I think this will be a hard movie for a lot of people to resist.  It certainly was for me.

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