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2018-08-17 08:11


The year is, roughly, 20,000 BCE and when the teenage son of the chief of a tribe of pre-historic humans is presumed dead after a hunt goes horribly wrong, he sets off for home with the help of an injured dog that he tends for after injuring. The only catch? This is well before dogs were domesticated and had more in common with feral wolves than man’s best friend.


The idea of telling the story – fictionalised, of course, as prehistoric man is defined by a lack of written records – of how dogs went from being, effectively, a breed of wolf to the beloved pets they are now is a good one. It’s especially a good idea to tell that through a classic “boy and his dog” adventure story for family audiences. Unfortunately, Alpha is such a mess of genres and ideas that, for all of its virtues, it’s an abject failure in what it sets out to do and has turned out in such a way that I’m pretty sure it will appeal to precisely no one.

First, the good stuff. Albert Hughes – one half of the highly respected Hughes Brothers directing team – and Austrian cinematographer, Martin Gschlacht, have crafted a uniquely beautiful visual experience. Set at the end of the Ice Age in what is now California (at least, that’s where it’s shot), there is ample opportunity for showcasing gorgeous, ice-swept vistas set against crystal clear, pre-industrial-age skies and the film never lets pesky plot or character work get in the way of the what looks like a significantly less pretentious (and, presumably, slightly more digitally-enhanced) Terence Malick flick. As pure, visual poetry, Alpha is a roaring success and is easily worth seeing for this alone, albeit preferably in a cinema that can do justice to the dazzling colours and sweeping camera work. It was filmed of IMAX and, no doubt, is best appreciated that way.

Also on the positive side of things, it may take a while for it to happen, but once the boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) finally befriends the fearsome wolf-dog (and it is a wolf-dog: the animal in question is really a mix-breed of, as I recall, a German Shepard and a Scandinavian Grey Wolf, which may not have actually existed back then but does more than adequately convey how much closer dogs were to wolves at the time) the film does pick up quite a bit as it has some cute-dog-action and Lassie-like sentimentality to go with the beautiful visuals.            

Unfortunately, all this is wasted on a film that is made up of one baffling decision after the other. Actual information around the film is surprisingly difficult to come by, but Alpha was apparently pushed back from its September 2017 release to a year later and was cut down from a nearly 3-hour running time to its current form of just over 90 minutes. While it’s entirely possible that the full, more “epic” version of the film would have added up to a much more satisfying whole, it’s not exactly hard to see why it was cut down so much in the first place.

Here we have a film that is ostensibly a family film but it’s too violent and too gruelling to work for younger viewers (its suggested age restriction is roughly 13, worldwide), not to mention that the whole film uses some form of ancient language (again, I haven’t been able to find out what the language actually is) throughout with English subtitles, which will work fine for non-English-speaking kids who are used to reading subtitles but won’t for English-speaking kids who aren’t. This may have been more historically accurate but just making it in English would have given it wider appeal to its primary audience: American kids. 

The biggest problem, though, is that Alpha is just tremendously boring. The second half of the film, as I said, is a huge improvement but the first half of the film, which spends an inordinate amount of time on characters who largely disappear once the plot kicks in, is a serious slog to sit through. Kids will be left wondering where the cute dogs are, while adults will be bored by how cliché and shallow the tribal dynamics are and will, no doubt, be left wondering the same as their kids or younger siblings: no, really, just where the hell are the dogs? The film begins with the hunt and resulting tragedy but instead of just moving on from there and drizzling some background info on the boy as it goes along or, more simply, spending ten minutes setting the humans up and then moving directly onto the main point of the film, it goes back a week and spends what feels like an actual week of setting up what ultimately adds up to not very much at all.

Even the “good” second half of the film is only an improvement on the first half, rather than being genuinely good in and of itself. It’s still a bit overly familiar and, though it may be too tough for younger kids, teenagers and adults will no doubt find it anaemic and desperately lacking in the sense of flow and excitement that comes with the best adventure films. At its worst, it plays like a PG version of the Revenant and is about as enticing and fun as that sounds. It also lacks in some truly memorable characters outside of the dog and, though Smit-McPhee is perfectly good in his role (as are, I suppose, the rest of the international cast), he isn’t given tons to work with. 

So, yes, if you’re looking for a stunning visual experience and some cute dogs, then by all means check Alpha out but if you’re looking for something less lethargically paced and more developed in terms of story and character, there’s, unfortunately, just not enough to be found here to make it worth your time. But, man, those visuals are pretty...

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