‘Alpha’ Is a Howling Good Time in a Theater Near You

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‘Alpha’ Is a Howling Good Time in a Theater Near You

‘Alpha’ Is a Howling Good Time in a Theater Near You

There are certain earmarks for what makes a “bad” movie.  And while these are by no means hard-and-fast rules that will definitely result in a cinematic dud, time and time again has proven that these are sound indicators of a troubled (and ultimately unsatisfactory) production.  From bad trailers to constantly shifting release dates (first for September of last year, then to March of this year, later to September of this year and finally to this month), Alpha (2018), a pre-historical drama about how the wolves were first tamed, seemed to have them all.

But I love dogs as much as the next guy — from big ol’ puppers to the littlest woofers — and I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to tell my wife “no” on this movie, so we went all-out on seeing what we started affectionately referring to as “Baby’s First Revenant:” opening night, IMAX, 3-D.  And with popcorn in hand, we settled down for what I figured would at least be a passable distraction until we got to see what I actually wanted to see (Crazy Rich Asians).

‘Alpha’ Is a Howling Good Time in a Theater Near You

We open on a paleolithic hunting party closing in on a herd of bison at the very edge of winter.  But while in the ensuing battle with the beasts, the chief’s young and uncertain son is hurled off of a cliff and left for dead.  Impossibly, however, he wakes up, sets his broken bones and even fends off a pack of hungry wolves looking for an easy meal: one of whom he stabs and is similarly left for dead by his compatriots.

Always a gentle soul, he nurses the wounded wolf back to health, and by bonding with it, trains it to be his companion, rather than his enemy.  With winter rapidly closing in on the pair, and against all the unbridled savagery of the ancient wilderness they find themselves in, the pair makes a desperate bid for their home and, with it, survival.

‘Alpha’ Is a Howling Good Time in a Theater Near You

I can’t say that I was expecting much when I sat down to watch Alpha.  It really was just “Baby’s first Revenant:” an against-all-odds survival story of man (and wolf) versus nature.  Even some pale approximation of that would have been enough for me to tuck in for a couple of hours and ride out the film’s narrow runtime .  And while that comparison remains a fairly apt one for anybody on the outside of this movie, it doesn’t quite do the resulting story justice.

Alpha actually is a good movie.  The Hughes brothers — capable, technically-oriented, journeyman directors who have pulled out solid entertainment from shakier premises before — actually acquit themselves quite admirably with this lone wolf-style narrative.  While nothing special in their own right, the dramatic scenes are exactly as good as is necessary in order to learn who these characters are, what their relationship is to one another and what is driving their narrative decisions forward.  By contrast, the action (and, by extension, survival) scenes are actually kind of brilliant.  It’s nothing that we haven’t already scene before in many similar movies (not the least of which was directed by Alfonso Cuaròn), but they are riveting sequences that often evoke visceral emotional responses for these characters.  Because of those workmanlike dramatic scenes earlier, we’ve grown to care about these characters, and by extension we care about the peril they find themselves in (and whether or not they’ll survive it).

‘Alpha’ Is a Howling Good Time in a Theater Near You

Despite the presence of a larger cast — including rival tribes, hopeful parents and indifferent clansmen — the entire movie ultimately rests on the performance of one young actor: relatively unknown quantity Kodi Smit-McPhee, who has been a bit player in Hollywood blockbusters for the last decade.  Although he certainly interacts with the other human players in this film, well over an hour of the film’s duration involves him, the wilderness and the dog.  The dog was always going to be fine (dogs are cute) and the wilderness doesn’t have to do much besides stay still and look pretty (which it is).  But the dramatic heft of the film was always the sole province of Smit-McPhee, who does a tremendous job in this film: something far beyond what had been hinted at by previous roles in X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014).

Beyond that, the reason to go to this film is to see just how unutterably gorgeous it can be.  They brilliantly render pre-historic Earth for our prolonged inspection: everything from the glittergold night sky, the dramatically cut mountains and the stark, snowy plains.  We see Keda (the chief’s son) hanging on the rickety side of a domineering cliff, caught midway between life and death.  We watch as icicles slowly grow and crystalize at the start of winter.  We see our brave hero break through the ice and get sucked along in the frozen undercurrent, only for his lupine companion to chase after him on the lake’s surface.  From a photographic perspective, it is easily one of the best-looking movies of the entire year: a fact which alone is worth the price of admission (especially in IMAX).

‘Alpha’ Is a Howling Good Time in a Theater Near You

While I really don’t see its handful of shortcomings as keeping it from a better grade when all is said and done, the movie does suffer in a few notable regards.  The film opens with a studio-mandated action sequence (the bison attack) before cutting back to weeks before, whereas a simple progression from cause-to-effect (preparing for the hunt, marching outward from the village, meeting up with the neighboring tribe, then hunting the herd) would have made both more sequential sense, would have gradually built up more tension for that climactic showdown and wouldn’t have broken the narrative flow the way the movie as presented ultimately did.  A plot point, in which the wolf temporarily leaves Keda for a new wolfpack, grinds the film down to a halt until it eventually returns to him.  And, though effective, the movie somewhat suffers from “Return of the King syndrome” where it employs too many fake-out endings just before the end credits.

So while I can’t say that this movie is better than Crazy Rich Asians (which it opened against) nor BlacKkKlansman (which is still in theaters) nor any of the other top-tier movies released so far this year, it is certainly more than worth seeing.  Fans of The Revenant or even just pet movies in general will really get a kick out of watching this film.  Like The Meg (2018), it’s just the perfect kind of easy, late August viewing to close the summer out with.

Rating:  3/5

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