UK Release Date: 24th August 2018
Runtime: 96 minutes
Director: Albert Hughes
Writer: Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Natassia Malthe, Morgan Freeman
Synopsis: When a hunting trip goes very wrong, a young Paleolithic man finds himself stranded far from his tribe, with only an injured wolf for company as he tries to get home.
Alpha is one of the strangest movies that has made its way into multiplexes this year. Somehow, the biggest chains in the UK were persuaded to give their IMAX screens to a movie in which a recognisable, but not particularly A-list, actor trudges across handsome wilderness with a wolf at his side for an hour and a half. The result is a movie that is beautiful to look at and interesting in its central conceit, but resolutely unexciting for anyone who deigns to track it down.
It’s a movie set in Paleolithic Europe, 20,000 years ago, and focusing on a tribe of hunters preparing for their annual trip to the location of a bison herd. Tribal chief Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) has decided that his son Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) should participate in the hunt this year in advance of his ascent to the top of the heirarchy, despite concerns that he “leads with his heart, not his spear” and the fact he seems to lack any killer instinct or even the basic skills required to start a fire. True to suspicion, he flounders on the hunt and tumbles down a cliff. The tribe assumes he has died and leaves, forcing Keda to make his own way home, with the help of a wolf he injures when it attacks him, but nurses back to health.
Director Albert Hughes – half of the directing duo behind Dead Presidents and The Book of Eli – can certainly be credited with remarkable visual ambition. This is a movie that deals in sumptuous landscapes and extraordinary visuals, where even the notion of Smit-McPhee’s protagonist eating a worm is shot with the sun-baked style of a Coca-Cola advert. If the goal was to showboat and display technical prowess, then you have to conclude that Alpha is a success.
With that said, though, the entire thing is a tedious trudge to experience. Smit-McPhee, a talented performer, suffers with the entire weight of the movie on his shoulders and the pacing is simply glacial, if you’ll pardon the pun. There’s a threadbare story, of course, but there’s an equal lack of depth in the relationship between the protagonist and his wolf, which is supposed to sit at the heart of the movie in lieu of a plot. It’s all book-ended by Morgan Freeman popping up as a narrator, who sounds like he’s introducing a lame Sunday afternoon TV drama about a man and his dog, rather than an epic historical journey.
There’s the germ of something interesting at the heart of Alpha, but this kind of endurance-meets-charm film needs a very particular brand of leading man, and Smit-McPhee unfortunately does not fit that bill. The movie plays out as The Revenant meets The Grey meets Marley & Me, but that hybrid sounds like it should be far more enjoyable than this one.
Pop or Poop?
Alpha is terrific to look at, but truly awful to experience. It’s dull and almost resolutely unexciting, while somehow managing to feel overlong at just over 90 minutes. Kodi Smit-McPhee certainly has the talent to lead a film, but he’s truly miscast in this one and is unable to get the material to where it needs to be.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.