Alpha and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing
Directed by Albert Hughes
Wait, didn’t this movie come out like four months ago? I feel like I’ve been seeing the poster for this for like a year now and it just passed me by somehow like The Founder, Gotti, and that Amityville thing they ended up giving away for free. For whatever reason this was just in the background for way too long for me to reasonably expect to ACTUALLY see it (especially considering I never even got a trailer for it despite seeing posters every once in a while), but I guess Crazy Rich Asians needed SOMETHING to trounce this weekend, so we’ve got this one out there to presumably make a quick buck for a weekend or two before slinking off to be forgotten. Okay, maybe that’s being a bit too harsh as the release schedule of a movie is hardly the best barometer for a film’s quality, and what little I know about this movie sounds… okay. I guess. Anyway, does this coming of age story about a boy and his wolf turn out to be the perfect blockbuster to cap off the season, or is the auspicious timing of its release a huge sign that you should stay very far away? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the story of the boy Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and the wolf Alpha (a Czechoslovakian Vlca known as Chuck) who run into each other under… shall we say STRAINED circumstances. You see the year is 17,982 BC (twenty thousand years ago as a subtitle informs us) and, Keda is a bit of a wussy whose dad (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) is the chief of his tribe and wants to get the wussy out of him before his wussiness gets the best of him. In order to de-wuss-ify the boy, he takes him on THE HUNT where they… I don’t know, hunt animals that are VERY far away in order to drag their rotting corpses back to the village and store for winter; presumably before the flies and maggots take ALL the good meat. Anyway, Keda The Wussy manages to get himself gored by a prehistoric buffalo and falls down to his presumed death; having never learned how to truly stop being a wussy. A tragedy for all involved, but the good news is that Keda somehow manages to survive his near certain death; albeit a little bit worse for wear. The bad news? Well the hunting crew has already gone back and so Keda has to travel all by himself back to the village which SEEMS to be hundreds of miles away. Again, seems like a pretty far way to go to get meat, but either way Keda has to find a way to get there before it starts snowing. Then he’s REALLY in trouble! But I know what you all are asking! WHAT ABOUT THAT SUPER ADORABLE WOLF!? It tries to eat Keda early on and gets injured in the process, but Keda decides to help the poor creature with sharp fangs and they eventually grow to be friends which makes it just a little bit more plausible for Keda to survive his journey. What does the wolf get out of this? I don’t know, table scraps? Does Keda have what it takes to survive such a harsh environment while also learning to stop being a wussy? Does the wolf truly care for Keda, or is it simply following him around so he can get at his precious meat when he drops dead of exposure?
Look, this is far from the worst movie of the year so I’m not about to get all rant-y and what not about it, but this is mind numbingly dull for most of its runtime and you’d honestly get a more fulfilling experience looking up dog videos on the internet. Okay, there are a lot of movies that are worse than dog videos on the internet, but it’s PARTICULARLY appropriate here because almost everything good I have to say about the movie involves that adorable as heck wolf and as great as it is, there’s no way it alone can justify the rest of this boring mess. Maybe I’m just all tapped out on coming of age stories focused on BEING A REAL MAN (the title is not very subtle about that) but this movie didn’t do a darn thing for me which isn’t as bad as putting me in an enraged stupor (*cough* The Darkest Minds *cough*) but managing to avoid the LOWEST depths of awfulness is hardly an accomplishment worth writing home about. Then again, it has an awesome wolf in it so I’ll give it a ten out of ten. No not really, but that wolf IS pretty awesome.
Really, I can only point to two aspects of this movie that stand out in any way; THE CUTE PUPPY, and it’s completely unrestrained visual style. I described this movie as The YA Revenant, but even more so than Iñárritu and Lubezki’s visual style, it feels like a mashup of Roger Deakens, Zack Snyder, and… oh would you look at that! Lubezki did Tree of Life as well, so I guess it’s even more like The Revenant than I originally thought! The landscapes of HUGE and do a great job of conveying the scope of Keda’s journey, while also finding places to get really close and intimate so that you see the depth of life emanating from even the smallest of places. It’s also balls out ridiculous at points as they throw EVERYTHING into every frame of this film to try and keep you from getting bored which doesn’t REALLY work but leads to some of the best moments in this movie. For no reason at all, we cut to a solar eclipse for about three seconds. They don’t even establish if it’s something that’s ACTUALLY happening in the movie as Keda never looks to the sky after we see it and the scene isn’t as dark as you’d expect considering there’s something blocking the sun. It’s just a visual that they threw in as some sort of nice looking transition, but it doesn’t MEAN anything! They do the same thing over and over again (one time they even show a volcano erupting!) and it’s all just visual nonsense that at least garnered a small chuckle out of me but didn’t really help this movie in the way I assume they expected it would.
In fact, the go for broke stylistic choices in this movie are perhaps indicative of the film’s greatest flaw which is its narrative. At no point in this movie did a single line of dialogue surprise me, entertain me, or even educate me all that much as to the goings on this world, and it’s really hard to care about your characters or your SUPER COOL CINEMATOGRAPHY if it’s impossible to care about what’s going on. Say what you will about Tarsem Singh, and there is PLENTY to say about his output, but his good movies are not just fantastic because of his eye for beautiful and lush cinematography! His sense of style EXTENDS to his characters and the world they inhabit so that it’s not only consistent to have THESE kind of stories being told with THESE kind of visuals, it’s also that much easier to get invested in the goings on the characters and to stay engaged with the visuals. The Fall is his best work by far, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as great if our colorful cast of adventures had no personality to them and their tale wasn’t tethered to the larger story of Roy and Alexandria. This movie has that same kind of awe inspiring cinematography (albeit not as much to my taste stylistically as The Fall), but I just didn’t care that much about Keda’s bog standard COMING OF AGE story as well as his whole DADDY ISN’T PROUD OF ME story line that was old hat even twenty thousand years ago. Heck, we already got a high profile version of that kind of narrative in an ancient setting with God of War, and while I have my issues with the way Kratos is framed in that, it certainly did a much better job of giving his son a personality than this movie does with its protagonist!
The only thing to make things the slightest bit engaging in regards to the story is that wolf that no joke has WAY more personality and likability than Keda, his dad, or anyone else they come across in this movie. Seriously, they aren’t in the movie until the twenty minute and those are easily the worst minutes of this movie, they get the best action scenes in the film as well as the most genuinely sympathetic moments (I swear they do the Puss in Boots eye thing at one point!), and they give Keda something to bounce off of which really helps keep things moving and its ESPECIALLY noticeable how badly it’s needed whenever the wolf is not directly in the scene. Heck, they manage to save the ending of this movie with a genuinely unexpected plot twist that is kind of brilliant! I mean they go about it in the most overt and tacky way possible (no surprise considering the filmmakers couldn’t help themselves from putting a VOLCANO in the darn film for three seconds), but it genuinely comes as a surprise and is incredibly well covered up not by obvious red herrings but by the themes and characters of the movie that sort of unconsciously direct you towards a specific viewpoint only to rip the rug out from under you before you even realize you were standing on one in the first place! Sure you can still find cute dog videos on YouTube and don’t have to pay money for the privilege, but the filmmakers made a really good call by giving the wolf that much to do in the story.
This movie gives off a TERRIBLE first impression and barely rises above mediocre for most of its run time, but there are moments of solid film making to be found in here along with a wolf that will certainly be the one thing everyone remembers if they remember anything at all about this. I don’t recommend checking it out at the theater because of how tedious a good sixty to seventy percent of the movie is, and even when it gets a home release it can hardly compete with the aforementioned YouTube videos, but it’s far from the worst thing we’ve gotten this year and aside from the premise of the movie going all in on the debunked Alpha idea (WOLVES IN THE WILD DON’T HAVE ALPHAS; THAT CAN ONLY SOMETIMES HAPPEN IN ARTIFICIAL PACKS!!), there’s nothing to even get angry at or even all that annoyed with. It’s just incredibly dull because it takes itself WAY too seriously, and you’re better off checking something else out at the theater instead of wasting your time on this. Now if they had replaced Keda with ANOTHER wolf, THEN we might have something worth seeing!