2018, PG-13, 96 min. Directed by Albert Hughes. Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Natassia Malthe, Leonor Varela, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Aug. 17, 2018
If you, like me, follow an assortment of dogs on Instagram, then there’s no shortage of wonderful mutt videos already in your life. For the rest of you, there’s Alpha, the 20,000-year-old story of how mankind came about its first canine friend. Keda (Smit-McPhee of Slow West, Let Me In), son of a mighty chieftain, has always failed to live up to the expectations that come with his bloodline. When his tribe sets out on their annual buffalo hunt, Keda decides the time has come to prove his worth, only to be left for dead after a violent stampede. Now Keda must form an unlikely partnership with a wounded wolf if either of them are to survive the long trek back home.
You might reasonably assume that Alpha is a hodgepodge of special effects that caters specifically to dog lovers, and you’d be mostly right. Once boy and dog are united, the movie takes the two across a predictable series of adventures meant to prove their loyalty to each other. Alpha even takes a page from other origin films and overexplains every aspect of dogs’ domestication. If you’ve ever wondered where your pet learned to instinctively hunt for sticks, play tug-of-war, or come to you when you whistle, don’t worry, this movie has the answer.
And yet, certain choices in the film feel directly at odds with its family-friendly aspirations. For one, Alpha is presented entirely in subtitles, with the human characters speaking to each other in a pre-English language (when they do bother to speak at all). For another, the action is often framed with the precision of a National Geographic photographer. Silhouettes abound; many of the film’s shots use an arresting combination of colors and static compositions to add vibrancy to the narrative. If the film was intended to be as accessible as possible, then nobody bothered to pass this information along to the photography department.
In fact, the two stars of Alpha are not Smit-McPhee and the canine actor but Martin Gschlacht and Sandra Granovsky, the film’s cinematographer and editor, respectively. Since the narrative amounts to a series of survival vignettes, the action is often stitched together through a mixture of landscape shots and time-lapse photography. The resulting sequences might as well be lifted directly from Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy; watching these pockets of pure cinema emerge from a "crowd-pleasing" story of a boy and his dog may just be one of the oddest experiences you have at the movies this summer.