Review: Bitter 'Alpha' gets stuck in the stone age
Courtesy of Sony
It’s strange to me that I’ve been seeing advertisements on TV lately with claims that “Alpha” is the feel good family movie of the summer. Some ads even feature the uplifting song “Home” and highlight some cute moments between the two main characters (a teenage boy and a scraggly looking wolf). It took me about fifteen minutes into the actual movie to realize that audiences across the globe will be duped, and perhaps gave me a better indication about why Sony kept shuffling the release date. The bitter truth? “Alpha” is neither the family friendly saturday matinée you’re looking for, nor is it a good survivalist movie. Honestly, it’s just dull. Think of a cross between “The Revenant” and “10,000 B.C.” minus the production value and heart.
For starters, the entire movie is in subtitles (something I have no trouble with, but I have a feeling audiences won’t be savvy with - what kid wants to read the entire movie?) And its location is only defined as “Europe 20,000 years ago.”
To it’s credit, “Alpha” does open with an exhilarating sequence in which we’re introduced to a beastly tribe herding a flock of wild buffalos. There’s hardly any dialogue - just action - and it’s handily the best thing “Alpha” offers its viewer.
As for the nameless tribe, it’s overseen by a stern leader named Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhanness) who is constantly challenging his fellow tribesmen in a battle of survival. He’s particularly hard on his son, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee looking lost the whole time) who can barely make a fire without hurting himself, or pass his father's strict trials.
Like a sore thumb, Keda is obviously the weakest link, often falling behind in comparison to his peers and can’t even slaughter a pig when given the blade to do so. The struggles only seem to worsen when he fails to defend himself against small creatures in the harsh and brutal wilderness. Each day, his right of passage is cast in doubt. Matters only get worse, when the young apprentice (after a horrible run in with those buffalos mentioned earlier) is left severely injured and presumed dead. Forcing his tribe to move forward without him.
Then comes the tale of redemption, as Keda, by some unforeseen miracle, makes it out of his predicament and gets into a heated exchange with a pack of stray wolves. He manages to wound one (while fending off the others on a broken ankle) and with that, Keda - being the animal lover he is - forges a new companion and begins his trek home.
You can imagine the tension at first, because no wolf is going to warm up to their captor, especially after being injured. Yet, in a matter of minutes, that happens. Putting into perspective how much time “Alpha” tries to spend in building a relationship that never sparks.
In fact, for a good chunk of the film, we never feel or see the transition in which Keda and Alpha (the name he bestows on his comrade) develop or grow. Remember in “The Revenant” where Hugh Glass went on a journey and you felt every second? Here, Hughes uses cut scenes and facial hair to help lazily progress jumps in the narrative timeframe (and to that note, they must’ve had solid beard trimmers 20,000 years ago, because Keda's mustache is primed and plucked).
The film also shamelessly uses murky 3D effects (in trying to boost sales I’m sure) to help enhance the background, and, again, it's a wasteful tactic that only restricts “Alpha” from being the best version of itself. Since the inclusion of 3D ten years ago, only a handful of movies have actually benefited from the technology and “Alpha” won’t be added to that list. Hollywood should learn that crisp and bright 2D still remains king.
Poor special effects aside, the film runs a lean 90 minutes. Meaning “Alpha” doesn’t necessarily break the barrier of elongated sequences. But maybe it should’ve? If it meant getting a few extra scenes between our furry friend and Keda, than perhaps an extra fifteen or twenty minutes would’ve been welcomed.
Yet, as it stands, “Alpha” never finds a rhythm between humble story of redemption and survivalist drama. Not only does the film disregard the basic fundamentals of what makes a strong friendship tick, its biggest mistake is that it invites the audience on a journey they’ll never feel part of.