Movie Review: ‘ALPHA’ is ‘THE BLACK STALLION’ for a new generation

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

ALPHA

Rated PG, 96 minutes
Directed by: Albert Hughes
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jóhannes Haukur JóhannessonNatassia MaltheLeonor Varela

In the time of massive, loud superhero-centered films reigning at the box office, it’s a ballsy, risky prospect for a major studio to invest in an introspective, atmospheric film like director Albert Hughes’ ALPHA. It’s a big deal for a filmmaker of Hughes’ caliber to take on the difficult challenges of a character-driven survivalist drama where one of the leads can’t talk and the other doesn’t speak in English. That’s what makes this endeavor feel like it comes from a passionate and enlightened place. Harrowing and heartwarming, this coming-of-age tale of unlikely “fwends” is a phenomenal, pulse-pounding journey worth taking.

The world was a dangerous place 20,000 years ago. It was also a gorgeous one, full of discoveries. Teen Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) learns this in a short amount of time during his inaugural hunting mission with his father Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). Tragedy strikes when a rogue buffalo mauls Keda, hurling him off a cliff. Unable to stir his unconscious son perched precariously on the side of the steep drop, Tau is forced to leave Keda for dead. But Keda is still alive and desperate to get home before winter rolls through. Injured and alone, he strikes up a friendship with a lone wolf (Chuck) he names “Alpha.” Together they endure mother nature’s brutality and beauty, relying on each other to get by.

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chuck in ALPHA. Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

ALPHA is an origin story unlike any other. It’s a testament to the indomitable spirit and resilience of man and his best friend – a life-affirming, enriching tale (tail?) of courage, bravery and survival. Their palpable struggles to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds are riveting and, at times, beguiling. How Keda learns to not only survive on his own, but lay the groundwork of domesticating a wild animal is fascinating. Hughes packs the picture with striking scenery and indelible imagery, like when Keda becomes trapped in a lake and Alpha pounces above the barrier of ice as he pounds from below. Balancing it all out are moments of levity, like when Alpha tries to sneak food, or when Keda unwittingly gets wrapped up in a game of fetch.

With dialogue at a bare minimum, Joseph S. DeBeasi and Michael Stearns’ elegant, symphonic score and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht’s staggeringly beautiful images (filled with an abundance of plays on the yellow/blue color theory) guide the narrative. Hughes, along with screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt, strips the story down to its pure essence. The characters’ actions and reactions are the driving force. It totally earns every emotional beat. Hughes taps into the power of the dynamic duo’s formative negotiations with wit and wisdom. The scene where Keda coaxes the injured beast out of its shell, feeding it, is reminiscent of the initial bond between child and horse in THE BLACK STALLION. Of course, there are many other touchstones and cloaked homages to that film in ALPHA. It’s also worth mentioning that, though ALPHA is just as gripping, it’s more palatable than the bruising, gut-punching nature of other unrelenting survivalist tales like THE REVENANT or LIFE OF PI.

That said, the narrative is hampered a bit when it brings more modern elements to the structure. It’s clear the filmmakers are striving to deliver the unexpected here. Yet the story begins “in media res.” This action-packed, attention grabber is a huge misstep as, when the scene plays a second time about twenty minutes later, it’s already taken the steam, awe and suspense completely out of that moment. The Joel Silver (with whom Hughes worked with on THE BOOK OF ELI) philosophy – one that has permeated film culture – may be to have an action-packed opening, but this unconventional tale simply doesn’t need it. Blessedly, that’s where the blights end.

With all this risk, the reward here is greatly impactful. It’ll make you run home to hug your dog.

Grade: 4 out of 5

ALPHA opens on August 17.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.