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CINEMASCOPE: LASSIE WITH A BITE

August 26, 2018

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For a film that’s light on dialogue and plot, Alpha has a lot of bite, especially if you happen to be an animal lover, in which case you’d be well-advised to carry a box of tissues with you into the cinema before you begin watching.

Set roughly 20,000 years ago in Europe during the Later Stone Age, the historical drama is a survival film with the central theme being man’s first domestication of wolves into creatures we now call dogs, or for meme lovers, as of late 2013, doges. Yes, such a heartfelt movie. So amaze.

The story is essentially a coming-of-age tail … err … tale about a young man named Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who, alongside his tribe, goes on a treacherous annual hunting expedition with his father and leader Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). This is much to the concern of his mother (Natassia Malthe) who believes her son leads with his heart rather than his spear. The journey to the sacred hunting grounds involves many perils, including a giant sabre-toothed cat so ferocious that it would make a modern-day tiger pack up its bags and say “That’s it, I’m out.”

At times Alpha comes across as a less mature version of The Revenant but it also feels edgier and more impactful

There is even a scene early in Alpha where Keda, whose tribe is trying to blood him, refuses to kill a trapped boar because he isn’t ready. His father reminds him that there is no dishonour in taking the life of an animal to sustain the life of his kin, at which point I wondered if this was the story of the world’s first dog or the story of the world’s first vegan. This theory quickly dissipated when I realised that Keda wasn’t walking up to random strangers and annoyingly asserting his lifestyle choice (just kidding, fellow tree-huggers).

Without giving too much away, at some stage Keda is assumed dead and must now make an awful journey back on his own in a winter so unforgiving that it would even give Canadians the shivers. Of course, he continues to lead with his heart when he refuses to finish off a wolf (Alpha) that attacked him. Soon, through heartwarming scenes that will even moisten the eyes of the manliest of men, Alpha becomes the quintessential dog, playing fetch and doing the sort of self-sacrificial deeds that will remind you of TV shows such as Lassie. Well, except this Lassie has a bite, and even takes on a man-eating bear to protect Keda in a pulsating action sequence.

Admittedly, as a lover of all creatures, especially dogs and cats, I was going in with my eyes ready for waterworks, even if the trailers made Alpha looked like a cheesy young adult version of The Revenant with a canine twist. You remember that Alejandro G. Iñárritu drama, right? When Leonardo DiCaprio had become so fed up with not winning an Oscar that he decided to engage in hand-to-hand combat with a bear, eat raw flesh and scale below-freezing temperatures across harsh conditions just to get the award that evaded him? And the Academy gave in after fearing for the sake of his sanity? At times Alpha does come across as a less mature version of The Revenant, but strangely, it also often feels edgier and more impactful. It’s as if director Albert Hughes started with a mission to make a mass-market film for a generation that has the attention span of a doorknob but then thought “S**** this, let’s make an artsy film.”

Alpha certainly has B-movie roots. For one, it is occasionally overproduced, initially featuring a number of Zack Snyder-esque overly gritty slow-mo set-pieces that take some of the gloss away from otherwise sensational action sequences. Secondly, the costume design is just awful. These cavemen who supposedly tanned and stitched together their own leather and fur garments wear coats that are clearly manufactured with precision. Trust me, I worked in the leather industry, and those clothes look professionally stitched even to the untrained eye. They may be cavemen, but they are cavemen with style. 

Alpha certainly has B-movie roots. For one, it is occasionally overproduced, initially featuring a number of Zack Snyder-esque overly gritty slow-mo set-pieces that take some of the gloss away from otherwise sensational action sequences

Elevating Alpha, however, is the gorgeous cinematography, the performances, and the look at the culture of Upper Paleolithic humans. Despite the over-eagerness in post-production, Martin Gschlacht’s camerawork here is simply stunning and worth the entrance fee alone. Shot in Canada, the film gives us a captivating look at an Earth relatively untouched by the global footprint of mankind. But more importantly, it’s the surprisingly powerful performances that lend Alpha heart.

Smit-McPhee and Jóhannesson have wonderful chemistry, adding real authenticity to their endearing father-son relationship. As for his solo scenes, Smit-McPhee is a real star, carrying Alpha on his emotional range alone. Finally, there is Chuck, the Czech wolf-dog that plays Alpha and wins our hearts from the get-go. What can I say about his performance other than ‘good boy’! Such gripping acting, wow.

Rated PG-13 for some intense peril

Published in Dawn, ICON, August 26th, 2018