Thursday, August 16, 2018

Review: "Alpha"

“Alpha” is a lyrical supposition of a movie. It imagines what the first meeting was like between man and dog that did not end in violence, and shows us how human and beast might have taken the initial steps in what is surely the most enduring and consequential partnership between any two species.

This is a gorgeous, transportive adventure movie that lifts you out of your seat and sets you down in the rocky peaks and valleys of Europe 20,000 years ago. We careen off cliffs, endure howling blizzards, battle hungry animals who crave human flesh (and vice-versa), and much more.

It’s as good an example of “You are there” filmmaking as I’ve seen since “Gravity.”

Director Albert Hughes shot the movie using IMAX 3D cameras -- no squishy aftermarket conversion here. 3D movies were a big thing for a while, until audience figured out it was mostly an excuse to hit them for a $3 upcharge.

But here is one film I strongly recommend you see on a good IMAX screen. This is the sort of cinematic experience in which you should feel enveloped.

Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Keda, a young man on his first buffalo hunt with his tribe. His father (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) is the chief, and it’s clearly expected that he will one day step into those fur-skin boots. He points to the alpha wolf baying across the valley, and instructs that leadership is earned, not given.

But Keda seems a bit scrawny and kind-hearted to be a great hunter.

His father tries to teach that taking life is a necessary step in sustaining the life of the tribe. The annual buffalo hunt keeps their small band stocked with meat and furs to last them the winter. Still, when the time for confrontation happens, Keda finds his courage wanting.

Through a set of circumstances I’ll not divulge, he is separated from the other hunters, and must spend months traversing the terrain back to his village, overcoming injuries and starvation. One of his first unfortunate encounters is with a pack of wolves. Hobbled by a dislocated ankle, he manages to slice one with his stone-bladed knife and scrambles into a tree to outlast their hunger.

When he finally climbs down, Keda discovers the injured wolf still lying there. After finding he lacks the heart to slay it, he carries it to a cave and they spend time healing up together. When he finally has the strength to start his journey home, the wolf, whom he dubs Alpha, tags along.

The screenplay by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt (story by Hughes) contains oceans of silence in which no dialogue is spoken. (Even when the people do speak, it’s in an ancient tongue that sounds like a mishmash of several Western languages.) Keda eventually starts talking to Alpha, but their greatest communication is through whistles, motions and eye contact. Soon natural enemies are the surest of allies.

The cinematography by Martin Gschlacht is just jaw-droppingly amazing, assisted by a little CGI here and there. We really feel like we’ve wandered back into prehistory, where the survival of the species depended on primal instincts.

“Alpha” is a terrific piece of entertainment that also imagines how man’s best friend earned that nickname.

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