“Alpha” is a familiar survival story told well and elevated by stunning visuals.
The story follows Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young hunter who is separated from his tribe during the upper paleolithic period. Left to die by his tribe when they determine any rescue to be impossible, Keda embarks on a journey home and along the way befriends an injured wolf.
It’s a simple story reminiscent of many live action Disney films of the 60s and 70s, but the content is considerably darker and harsher. Much of the marketing for the film has tried to sell it as the story of how canines became man’s best friend. That’s an interesting way to frame the story but it only goes so far in making plot story seem fresh. What really works here are the impressive visuals director Albert Hughes and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht use to tell the story. The film is more violent than many survival films that carry the PG-13 rating, but it only suggests gore by showing many of the kills from overhead. Editor Sandra Granovsky has cut the film brilliantly, honing in on faces (human and beast) when needed and giving the wide angle action plenty of room to unfold with noticeably fewer cuts than most action sequences typically utilize.
This is a film that benefits from a large screen in a dark auditorium. I will certainly watch it again on my TV when I can purchase a copy in 4K, but I still recommend going to see this in a theater. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of seeing it in 3-D. It has been a somewhat busy weekend and I didn’t want to go out Sunday evening to see a movie when I have to work Monday morning, so I opted for the only afternoon showing, which was in 3-D. I’ve complained about this before, but 3-D dims the image, and while what I saw was still very beautiful, I know it would have been more vivid without those damn glasses.
Are there some flaws with this film? Sure. It tries to go for a more authentic feel by not having the characters speak English, which is fine. The film is set 20,000 years ago in a continent that is now Europe. Obviously the characters would not speak English. The filmmakers create a fictional language and have English subtitles for the entire film. I liked that. I appreciated that they didn’t go for the easy and commercially more viable tactic, but they overuse subtitles and end up having the characters speak in many instances where it isn’t necessary. The feelings conveyed by the words could have been accomplished only by visuals. The subtitles used in this way become a bit of a distraction from the impressive visuals. I think when I watch a second time, I mostly will just ignore the subtitles. I doubt I will get anything less out of the experience.
There is a flashback scene early in the film that goes on a little longer than it needs to, but overall this is well cut and nicely paced. I appreciate that Hughes seems aware that the script he is working with can be a really solid 90 minute film, and neither he nor screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt try to stuff more into this story for the sake of making a two hour film.
One final bit of praise I have is that the dialogue when Keda is talking to the wolf, whom he names Alpha, mostly avoids being cheesy. That shouldn’t be a huge accomplishment, but looking back on films where people talk to or at animals, depending on your point of view, the result has been a lot of over dramatic, syrupy nonsense. I am thinking about War Horse in particular, which could have been great with a little more subtlety. This film succeeds in avoiding cringeworthy dialogue in the scenes with Keda and Alpha, and that was a big relief to this viewer.