Release: Friday, August 17, 2018
Written by: Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt
Directed by: Albert Hughes
As the dog days of summer are finally upon us, you might consider taking a walk somewhat off the beaten path by checking out Albert Hughes’ Alpha. A prehistoric epic adventure set 20,000 years ago in unrecognizable Europe, it offers a tale of suffering, survival and unexpected alliances, chronicling a young boy’s harrowing journey back home and the help he receives along the way after he becomes separated from his tribe.
Visually hypnotic, lavishly costumed and boasting a rich, ambient sound design, Alpha represents something of a dying breed of cinema when it comes to its more technical aspects. It feels far more like an artifact from a long forgotten period than a movie released in 2018. The last ice age as a setting — as much a mystical concept as it was an actual reality — reminds us of how nice it is to get away from civilization for awhile. Hughes harnesses the sheer scale of this brave new world in a few breathtaking shots of the British Columbian landscapes (a great substitute for paleolithic Europe) before homing in on a more specific purpose: what conditions might have precipitated this profound and unshakable bond we now share with dogs?
Despite its PG rating, Alpha traverses some pretty harsh terrain. Eons ago the world was a more natural place but also more hostile. Lifespans were generally characterized as short and brutal. We get a sense of all of that in this film, though the camera tidies themes up a bit by keeping most of the grisly details out of frame. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Keda, a teenager with a lot to live up to being the son of tribal chief Tau (Game of Thrones‘ Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). The epically bearded Icelandic actor imbues him as a demanding leader but also as a deeply loving father.
He is to lead his equally epically-bearded cadre of hunter-gatherers on an annual expedition to bulk up on food supplies for the coming winter. Throughout the early stages they frequently reference “the great beast.” Chief Tau insists it is Keda’s time to learn the ways of his people, while Rho (Norwegian model and actress Natassia Malthe) is less convinced of her son’s preparedness. Keda takes his initiation beating all the same — as if this custom can actually prepare him for the physical ordeals he is about to endure over the course of several grueling months.
Alpha charts a path through the vast and spectacular wilderness so easy to follow no amount of snowdrift will disorient you. Given its economic narrative, there isn’t much room for depth and nuance beyond the broad strokes of demonstrative acting. There isn’t a great deal of personality to the human characters but Smit-McPhee manages to impress in a quiet, unpretentious capacity. Like the punishing elements that surround him, he feels natural, authentic — especially in moments of peril. The authenticity goes beyond the visual. Alpha even touts its own language, with linguistic anthropologist Christine Shreyer tasked with approximating the kinds of sounds these very early people might have used to communicate.
Of course, Alpha won’t set the world on fire. It is effective for what it is — perhaps even powerful given its ostensibly restrictive MPAA rating — but I won’t hold any pretense this historical drama will siphon off even a modest chunk of the steadily superhero fatiguing public. And that is regrettable given how refreshing Alpha often feels.
Recommendation: To some extent Alpha feels like a more sanitized version of The Revenant, and while that might sound like damning with faint praise again I reiterate its PG rating. It is quite impressive what the film is able to do within those confines. And speaking of limitations, the other thing I really like about Alpha is that “epic adventure” is not a misnomer. It is indeed that, only captured in 96 quite fleeting minutes.
Running Time: 96 mins.
Quoted: “Pain will journey with us.”
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