Review: Alpha

After a heavy-handed opening act, Alpha blossoms into a familiar but effective man-and-mutt adventure.
Review: Alpha

Written and directed by Albert Hughes, Alpha.

With its moniker and early burst of machismo, Alpha initially does itself few favours. Thankfully, the film’s title and first act prove somewhat deceiving. Exploring a young hunter’s exploits across Europe’s rocky plains during the last ice age 20,000 years ago, the movie originally presents itself as a testosterone-fuelled coming-of-age quest, focusing on a teenager showing his father and tribe that he can be a man. That’s merely the starting point for a tale that’s equally recognisable but vastly more engaging: a boy-and-dog adventure.

Or, more accurately, heavy-handed machismo should just provide starting context to Alpha’s central journey. It’s to the film’s detriment that it spends its entire opening third wallowing in the stereotypical image of pre-historic manliness before letting the gentler main narrative play out. Making his solo filmmaking debut after helming Menace II Society, From Hell and The Book of Eli with his brother Allen – and working with a screenplay that’s based on his own story and penned by first-time screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt – writer/director Albert Hughes borders on baiting and switching. His approach could be seen to exemplify one of the movie’s main themes, aka that something worthy resides within everyone, but that might be giving it too much credit.

Winter is coming and, in the lead up, so is the annual bison hunt. Alas, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee, X-Men: Apocalypse) doesn’t have the skills or constitution of his tribal leader dad Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Atomic Blonde). A slender wisp of a teen, he’s sensitive instead of physically strong, and he’s reluctant to kill animals. Then Keda is thrown off a cliff by a stampeding beast, onto a ledge that Tau can’t reach. Presumed dead – if not from his injuries, then due to his precarious predicament – the boy is left to fend for himself. When he finds his way to safety, he’s forced to ward off a pack of wolves, injuring one, nursing it back to health and making a new friend in the process. 

After commencing with Keda’s fall, unravelling the week leading up to it via flashbacks, and then introducing the wolf that’ll eventually be named Alpha, the film settles into a warm, familiar but effective rhythm. Part survivalist story, part cross-species camaraderie, it always feels old-fashioned, yet never tugs on the heartstrings too forcefully. Indeed, once its man-and-mutt tale finds its footing, Hughes demonstrates why Alpha’s first act proves so misguided – when he ditches bravado and bluster for the simplicity of a human and animal banding together to endure harsh conditions and overcome obstacles, his feature resounds with authenticity, even with its narrative arc always apparent.

Casting, both of Smit-McPhee and of the canine called Chuck who plays Alpha, assists considerably. With two-thirds of the film trained on the duo, their empathetic, expressive performances are tasked with relaying much of the feature’s emotional heft. Uttered in a language created especially for the movie, dialogue has a role, but a story of a boy discovering his inner strength by bonding with a wolf isn’t dependent on words. The surrounding imagery doesn’t always do its part – ultra slick backgrounds often resemble stock computer desktop backgrounds, while a fondness for slow-motion in action scenes wears thin – however when Alpha hews close to its core focus, it howls with heart.

3 stars ★★★

Director: Albert Hughes
US, 2018, 96 mins
Release date: September 27
Distributor: Sony
Rated: PG

Sarah Ward

Tuesday 25 September, 2018

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay