Directed by Albert Hughes
Story by Albert Hughes
Screenplay by Daniele Sebastien Wiedenhaupt
Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Natassia Malthe, Joannes Haukur Johannesson, Jens Hulten
As a kid, one of my favorite, and ultimately saddest moments in movie watching came from Wolfgang Petersen’s “The Never Ending Story,” where Atreyu’s horse, Artax drowned. You learn very early in that film that Atreyu is a character with deep feelings and attachments. As an impressionable 8 year old, it captured my attention; it is something that’s stayed with me through today.
No, Albert Hughes’s “Alpha” is nowhere near as depressing as you might think. But, it is every bit as dramatic. Set in Europe approximately 20,000 years ago, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) undertakes a journey of self-discovery as he is separated from his hunting group following an encounter with a steppe bison.
Part “Dances With Wolves,” part “The Black Stallion” Albert Hughes offers a deft direction from his original story; the screenplay was written by Daniele Sebastien Wiedenhaupt. The biggest theme of this film is friendship and Hughes approaches it with a lot of heart as Keda follows his path, both physically and mentally.
Keda’s endurance is put to the test multiple times, but nothing can prepare you for how his own journey starts. One of Hughes’s choices was to start the film at the actual hunt, we are left hanging awaiting Keda’s fate. But we learn very quickly of tribal society 20,000 years ago. I’m surprised to find that that aspect of modern society hasn’t evolved beyond tribalism, but that quality is what allows humans to survive.
Hughes’s choice to develop a language and use subtitles in a film aimed at children is a bold one. I found that the visual interactions on screen focused on the intimate details while the subtitles carried the story. It was interesting to watch Keda’s relationship with the wolf develop. There was a bond of trust which formed naturally (or as naturally as you can in a 96-minute film.)
Thematically, Alpha has many meanings in this film’s story as the balance of power, or better control, shifts from character to character. The progression is a natural one as Keda gains the wolf’s trust and they learn to survive together.
Creating the visual environment of 20,000 years in the past fell on the shoulders of cinematographer Martin Gsclacht (“Goodnight Mommy”). A large majority of the production was shot in Vancouver and had remote locations in Iceland as well as in Alberta. The images the Gsclacht captured were stunning. From intimate family gatherings in the teepee to treacherous savannahs to sheer cliff walls there is a reverential feel to Gslacht’s cinematography which managed to keep Keda and the wolf front and center.
I managed to see the film in 3D and though it doesn’t create any additional emotional connection to the characters or their environment, it certainly helps to keep your attention. I found myself white-knuckling the theater chair armrests even though I knew what would potentially come next. I don’t want to leave you with the idea that the story telegraphs its resolution. Intuitively, it does that from the trailers. But there’s so much story that the 3D does indeed grab you and doesn’t let go.
There were some moments of incredulity where you might be inclined to say “that’s not believable.” Those moments are not enough to put you out of the movie. It’s a great family adventure in the tradition of “The Black Stallion” and “The Never Ending Story” and children will be enthralled by the adventure and the story of friendship.
3 out of 4.