Spirited Adventure: Our Review Of ‘Alpha’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - August 17, 2018
Spirited Adventure: Our Review Of ‘Alpha’

Just when I thought I was done with origin stories… Albert Hughes’ new film, Alpha, is the prequel I didn’t know I wanted. Alpha goes way back into time and shares the origins of man’s best friend. If that heart-warming premise isn’t enough of a hook – because clearly, you’re a cat person – then Alpha’s striking visuals and wrenching coming-of-age-story should help win you over.

Alpha takes place 20,000 years ago and follows an ancient tribe’s trek across Europe. The story picks up during a bison hunt, with our hero, the baby-faced Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), out to prove himself before his father Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), the tribe leader. Keda lacks the ruthlessness that thrives in his eat or be eaten world. And he’s the weak link in his hunting party’s attack. An enraged bison turns the tides and homes in on Keda. It plows through him like a freight train, drags him towards a cliff, and sends him over the edge. Assuming Keda is toast, the hunting party leaves without him.


Keda awakens alone, hobbled, and lacking the skills to survive in the wild. So, when a hungry pack of wolves catch his scent, he’s all but done for. Keda injures one of the wolves and waits the rest out from up in a tree. With the pack gone, his kind heart takes over and he can’t bring himself to leave the animal for dead. He nurses the wolf back to health and names it Alpha. Before long, the duo realizes life is easier when they work together. Joined by his new friend and ally, Keda must find his inner-alpha if he hopes to make it back home before winter.

Man/Woman against nature stories pose their share of narrative challenges. Why else would Cast Away devote so much time to the Hanks-volleyball bromance? Alpha could have been a real slough in the wrong filmmaker’s hands. Hughes steps up to the daunting challenge and then knocks it out of the park. This visually dynamic film always has something exciting happening onscreen. Hughes maximizes every millimetre of the frame; Alpha’s visual compositions reveal character, plot, and thematic details. Even when no dialogue is spoken, Hughes’ film speaks volumes.

No line of dialogue could make Keda’s journey feel more hopeless than what we see when the camera pulls back, rendering him and Alpha as two specks moving across the brutal landscape. In another instance, Hughes unleashes the camera, letting it soar over mountains, beneath lakes, and through valleys, while time fast-forwards through day and night cycles. It’s a visual info-dump that contextualizes the journey’s impossible distance. It doesn’t feel like the duo are in a different region than Keda’s tribe, it feels like they’re in a different galaxy.


I have a love/hate feeling towards Alpha’s 3D. On the plus side, Hughes puts it to exceptional use. He always seeks out the most dynamic way to capture a shot; above land, below the sea, from a treetop, or over one’s shoulder. He also composes shots on multiple planes, foregrounding part of the environment to create a sense of depth. The effect is the movie version of being a fly on the wall. It’s stunning, immersive, and at times thrilling. It’s also really dark and it’s tough tracking what’s happening in certain scenes. Too often, the dull projection methods required to create 3D images detracts from the bright and colourful visuals.

The film’s greatest hurdle is its unconventional storytelling approach. There’s little dialogue and what we hear is spoken in an ancient language; its measured survival movie pace, and it all rests on Kodi Smit-McPhee’s bony shoulders – he’s a gifted young actor but no Hollywood draw. I can’t argue with anyone who tells me this film is too slow for their taste. If someone told me this movie isn’t interesting, though, I would have a bone to pick.

Alpha features gorgeous cinematography, resonant themes, and an unlikely friendship capable of melting the most cynical hearts. Hughes just delivered the type of gripping original movie we pine for whenever a new Transformers flick steamrolls through multiplexes. Between the harrowing story, eye-popping visuals, and the film’s straight-up fun factor, Alpha is the perfect choice for a late-summer movie-going adventure.

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Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based freelance writer and pop culture curator. Victor currently contributes insights, criticisms, and reviews to several online publications where he has extended coverage to the Toronto International Film Festival, Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark, Toronto ComiCon, and Fan Expo Canada. Victor has a soft spot in his heart for Tim Burton movies and his two poorly behaved beagles (but not in that order).
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