Even for a Cat Guy: Alpha

Once in a while, a movie comes along that you know isn’t flawless, but you love anyway.  Having never been a dog owner, I never expected that “Alpha” would be one of those movies.  The film has a pretty rocky start.  It has some cringe-inducing dialogue (none of it in English) and doesn’t have a long enough running time to come to a satisfying conclusion, but it’s just so incredibly beautiful, and has such an exceptional performance in it, that I couldn’t help but be swept away by it.  Scene by scene the movie pulls you in, making you care deeply about its main two characters.

“Alpha” takes place in Europe 20,000 years ago, during the last ice age.  The film opens with a tribe of humans cornering a herd of buffalo at the edge of a cliff in what is Keda’s (a teenage boy, and our main character) first hunt.  Chaos ensues, and Keda ends up falling off the edge of the cliff.  Thought dead, Keda’s father and the rest of their tribe head home, leaving him alone and injured, with no idea how he’s going to make it home before winter.  He ends up befriending a wolf (I won’t say how as I don’t want to give too much detail) and the two begin their journey back towards Keda’s village.

And what a beautiful journey it is.  The film is filled with creative scene transitions (sparks from a fire blend into the next scene as stars in the sky in one scene), breathtaking wide shots, and gorgeous landscapes.  The filmmakers (Albert Hughes directed, and Martin Gschlacht handled the cinematography) use a mixture of practical on location filming and (clear) CGI effects to create the awesome world in which the story takes place.  There were scenes in this movie that had me shaking my head in disbelief at how gorgeous it was.

Whether it be a creative way of filming one of our characters trapped under ice, a time-lapse shot of the landscape, or the inside of an icy cave, almost everything looks fantastic.  One thing I loved about this film was the decision to highlight the background, while many times leaving objects in the foreground (characters mainly) so dark as to be a silhouette.  The look of this elevates it far beyond its cookie cutter story, or it’s admittedly poor creature effects (the animals many times look like cartoons).

Hughes decided to begin the film with an action scene before going back one week in the narrative to show you what lead up to it.  I can only assume that this decision was made because he was worried about starting off a movie that has hardly any dialogue with 15 minutes of backstory.  I get it, people may have been bored, but it felt like it took the air out of the big, “Keda falls off a cliff” scene.  It just feels disjointed, and by the time we’re taken back to a recap of the opening scene, it’s rendered ineffective.  We would have cared a lot more about what was happening had we have gotten to know Keda before we initially saw what happened to him.

The number of ham-fisted monologues also hurt the story.  Since it has to try to get as much of the story across as possible, using characters that don’t say much, goofy lines are said like, “… he leads with his heart, not with his spear,” and that can weigh on you a bit towards the beginning of the film.  That being said, once it becomes about “a boy and his dog” it takes flight, as the relationship between the two of them is fantastic.

The marketing team behind this movie tagged it as being about the origin of “man’s best friend,” and it certainly gets that point across; Interactions are highlighted such as begging for food, fetching a stick, and teaching your animal discipline.  It was delightful to watch Kodi Smit-Mcphee (who plays Keda) interact with the animal.  When they first meet, they are clear enemies, and you get a sense that through the first 20% of their scenes together the dog would rip his throat out if given the opportunity.  How Keda tames the dog is entirely believable, and there’s a definite arc for both characters, which makes you genuinely worried whenever they’re in danger.

One thing that surprised me was just how dark and gritty this film got at times.  Both Keda and Alpha (that’s the name of the dog) get injured in this film multiple times, and the film doesn’t stray from showing it to you.  There are some nice touches to make the world feel authentic and dangerous.  Maggots are used to clean out cuts, characters eat bugs as a way to survive, and broken bones have to be reset.  I wasn’t expecting content like this in a movie that they seemed to be marketing towards 8-year-old boys.

I’ve always been more of a cat guy, but I couldn’t help but fall in love with this movie.  It overcomes its faults with an excellent lead performance, an impressive canine performance, some Oscar-worthy cinematography, and a raw emotional story.  It’s easily the biggest surprise, and possibly the most beautiful movie, of the year.  See it.

Grade: B+