By Ryan Keating-Lambert
Alpha is a beautifully crafted survival movie that puts a focus on mood and visuals. It’s spellbinding and easily the best blockbuster of the summer.
Directed by Albert Hughes, who previously only directed projects with his brother Allen (The Book of Eli, From Hell), has gone solo with this memorable boy-meets-dog origin tale. Set in Europe at the tale end of the last ice age, Alpha sees young hunter-gatherer Keda (Kody Smit-McPhee) embark on a hunting journey before an accident separates him from his tribe and he’s forced to take refuge with an injured wolf.
When I first saw the trailer for Alpha, I expected something more stereotypical and predictable. I expected Roland Emmerich’s 10,000 BC – a big budget blockbuster with an excess of cheap-looking CGI and cave-men that switch from cave-men English to Queens English in a single line. Thank god, Alpha has absolutely none of that.
Kody Smit-McPhee’s transformation from a boy who can barely light a fire to a realistic warrior is a notable one. The way McPhee’s Keda adapts to the harsh realities of being stuck in such a formidable landscape, with limited dialogue I might add, is at time even awe-inspiring. Not surprising though, considering this is the young Australian actor who was also trying to survive the cannibal-ridden wasteland of the 2009 post-apocalyptic film The Road.
McPhee’s anguish and struggle are real, very real, and made only more intense through the heartwarming relationship with the wolf, played by a real-life pup with a dash of cutting edge CGI. As the pair bond and eventually become inseparable, Alpha becomes more than just a standard survival drama, and becomes a powerful ode to man’s best friend. Even if you’re not an animal person, you’re sure to well up at some point or another.
The pair are faced with all the natural world struggles that you’d expect from such a film, including powerful storms, blizzards, starvation, and other predators, but rather than go through the motions of a typical Hollywood blockbuster like the previously mentioned 10,000 BC or even Mel Gibson’s blood-soaked Apocalypto, Alpha focuses less on sensational violence and effects and more on raw performance and atmosphere.
A big part of this mood is probably due to Austrian Director of Photography Martin Gschlacht, known for his brilliant work on recent indie gems such as surprise horror Goodnight Mommy and rotoscope animation Tehran Taboo. In Alpha, Gschlacht emphasises just how tiny and insignificant man and beast are by giving us wide shot after wide shot of the stunning but barren landscapes of Iceland and North America. The overall look of the film reminds me visually of Darren Aronofsky’s bible epic Noah, which was also filmed in Iceland. It seems to be the perfect fit for this genre.
This type of grand scale cinematography and generous use of special effects can easily outshine a simple survival story like this one, but director Albert Hughes carefully utilises modern technology to enhance the overall mood here, rather than over-complicate it. Combined with Joseph DeBeasi and Michael Stearns atmospheric / progressive rock sounding score, this film is at times, an exhilarating prehistoric head rush that more than earns its IMAX 3D format.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film was that it didn’t fall into the trap of using English which we all know sounds absolutely ridiculous in a setting like this. The pre-civilisation language actually sounds somewhat convincing and the dialogue, although simple, is never too cheesy or unbearable.
Be warned however, that if you see this film in Czech cinemas, there are no English subtitles, not that that should stop you from seeing it. It’s a very visual film, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Make it the movie that concludes your summer blockbuster season.