Alpha – 2018

Director Albert Hughes
Screenplay Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt
Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee,Chuck, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhanness, Jens Hultén, Leonor Varela

There is a point in the third act of Albert Hughes’ Alpha where our protagonist and his newly won best friend have been chased by some hyenas into a cave that seemingly has multiple entrances. The ensuing tussle comes from a surprising place and leaves the two in a precarious condition that should make it hard to survive. There they are in a cave, with some food and shelter from a massive and continuous onslaught of snow. The very next scene sees the two limping along, back out in the snow in the middle of the night.

Why don’t they stay put, eat a bit and recover? What makes them think they should be able to survive the developing pneumonia and whatever the heck just happened to the wolf?

Such is the difficulty with creating a man (and dog) versus nature story. So many instances that would be seemingly and agonizingly fatal are merely contrivances designed to make us feel something as the story stumbles along to the next contrivance and beyond.

The reasons I had for viewing alpha were mainly two. First, Kodi Smit-McPhee has been a humble and reliable actor in some good films. If for nothing beyond The Road and Let Me In, it’s worth a shot to see how he might carry a film.

The second is the curious choice to show the film in IMAX 3D. It’s understandable that an expanse as big as continental Europe 20,000 in the rearview would be something worth seeing on a big screen.

The story is one often imagined historically. Man finds himself in need of a companion and ends up with a wolf who is in the same position. The dawn of domestication. It would take a special man to see the possibility therein. Perhaps, as young Keda’s mother says, one who “leads with his heart.” Then there is that special set of circumstances, where a dog doesn’t just tear up the human with its pack.

There are some interesting scenes in the lead up to the situation that finds Keda at the point where the cosmic tumblers click into place. The daring buffalo raid is one we’ve heard of so many times, it’s amazing I don’t remember seeing it on film.

The problems early in the film are numerous. The tribe lives in one place and then they send their hunters somewhere else, many miles away, just to meet up with another group and go many more miles. This goes against the idea of a nomadic tribe that would follow their food source. This does give us the opportunity to give the protagonist somewhere to go back to, though, as well enough time to form a bond.

I am ahead of myself though.

The hunt goes bad, of course, and Keda is left as dead in a very precarious spot. He is not dead. He does have a broken ankle, though. He solves that with a few well placed rocks and then a self-made splint. Then off he goes.

As one who’s spent the last few months with a broken foot, I can say with some assurance that this would be a little tougher to overcome in record time without a doctor and a knee roller. If we take him off his feet, the film slows down. So off he goes.

The wolf is one of many that chase him up a tree. In the process it is injured and left for dead by its pack. Not sure why it wasn’t eaten, if they were hungry enough to try waiting the young man out, but the movie ends when the dog does.

Keda takes it upon himself and his still splinted ankle to bring the dog back. Their bonding takes place over a long enough time to build some trust. Having not done this before, I am not sure how long it should take.

Everything goes well for a while. They escape some predators, and start to learn how to work together to catch other things. The path seems to go pretty well up until the bad weather kicks in and our pup heads back to the pack.

This is the point that the story really goes off the rails, Revenant style. If you liked the way that story went, then this one shouldn’t bother you much. Since I have heard of hypothermia and pneumonia, it doesn’t work as well for me, even if the human is born in the wild.

The IMAX 3D aspect is not as much a selling point as one would hope. There are no shots where it seems relevant to have things heading towards the camera and the vistas are nice, but nothing that wouldn’t have a similar effect on a regular screen.

Smit-McPhee is beset with a presentation of a language unique to the tribe of people in this film. The effect is negligible as he still looks like a deer caught in the headlights with or without the baby moustache.

The rest of the cast is relegated to looking concerned, panicked and relieved in that order.

The dog of the story is fine, if somewhat anonymous for a buddy movie. Not every dog is distinguishable as Old Yeller.

This film will not stick with me too much beyond this week, to be sure. It’s just another approximation of stuff we’ll never be able to prove.  Hughes might want to stick with future apocalypse stuff like The Book of Eli, since most of his work seems to be based on stuff placed for effect more than researched. At least the future hasn’t occurred for us to see he’s kind of playing us for effect.

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