Saturday, 6 October 2018

Alpha (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: In 20,000 B.C., young Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is being taught the ways of the hunter/gatherer by his father and tribe leader Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). However, Keda ends up separated from his tribe after a seasonal bison hunt, with his tribe assuming him dead. Stranded far from home, and with only a likewise-separated wolf at his side, he has to make it across the harsh, prehistoric wilderness.

Before getting into the cast in any great detail, even though there isn’t as much to highlight this time around, we should probably get into the dialogue they’re using first. The writing doesn’t appear to be in any definable human language, going instead for a constructed fictional language. This means that not only are there oodles of subtitles for all of the human speech, it’s subtitling that doesn’t even seem to match up with the linguistic rhythm of said speech. Coming from a first-time writer in Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise as invented languages are extremely tricky to pull off convincingly, especially in settings that lack a science-fiction or fantasy-fiction edge to it. Because of this, a lot of the efficacy with the actors comes strictly down to their performances, as the specific words ultimately don’t mean as much in the moment.
While Jóhannesson does a great job as the strong, stoic leader of the tribe, and Natassia Malthe gives audiences a chance to see her in something not-Uwe-Boll-related for a change, it’s ultimately Smit-McPhee who has to hold down the majority of this film on his own, save for Chuck as his canine companion. And frankly, given the impressive array of films he’s put his efforts to already from Let Me In to ParaNorman to Slow West, it really says something when his performance here feels like the one that will get people to seriously take notice of this guy.
When the most prominent examples of prehistoric Earth on film in the last handful of years includes material like 10,000 B.C. and Year One, it seems like the attempts at visually depicting this bygone era can only improve over what has unfortunately become the norm. And in the hands of Martin Gschlacht, we most certainly get that improvement. Gschlacht showed frightening efficacy with the natural world back in Goodnight Mommy, showing undeniable skill in turning shifting rocks into something quite eerie, and he only builds on that with this effort. His use of framing is positively out-of-this-world, using the burnt orange of a sunset, the vibrant purple crackle of lightning and the icy negative space of a snow storm to show nature at its most unrefined and unrelenting.
Aside from making for some of the most consistently smooth scene transitions I’ve ever covered on this blog, the way he depicts the world as it existed before humanity staked its claim to it gives an almost mystical quality to the landscape. It’s almost like we’re watching the Earth in the process of being born into what we consider civilization today, with ample use of both scope and proximity to make for some exceptionally breathtaking visuals.
Of course, all that cosmic beauty only barely manages to hide the sheer danger that lurks on this land, and it’s here where the film really starts to get interesting. As much as I have ragged on the sloppiness of the invented dialect of the script, that’s not to say that the writing doesn’t make for some rather poignant moments. Chief amongst them, fittingly enough, comes from Jóhannesson’s Tau who tells his son that “Life is earned, not given”. That sets up the main conflict of the film, as well as the main drive for Keda’s character arc: Finding the strength to survive in a world this unforgiving.
Through an emphasis on pre-civilized humans, where simply surviving to see the next dawn was all the activity a person needed for the day, we are given what is ostensibly a nature-driven coming-of-age story, with Keda being thrown into the deep end and being forced to make it on his own. Whether he’s hunting for food, trudging through an ungodly snowstorm, or solemnly contemplating his approaching mortality, Smit-McPhee fills the focal point character with a definite youthful recklessness but also a sharpened understanding that this is a world that will swallow him whole if he isn’t careful. This makes the action-oriented moments hit that much harder, as the focus is placed more on the odds stacked against our hero than anything bombastic or flashy.
And then there’s the animal side of things, and holy hell, do we have a lot to cover with this one. For a start, there is a distractingly uneven use of CGI to bring some of these beasts to life, making for the kind of computer texturing that is passable but still unmistakably not of flesh and bone. This is something of a surprise since not only does this film feature the genuine article, right down to having an actual Wolfdog as the title character lest we end up in Life Of Pi territory, but that the way the filmmakers treated said animals landed the production in hot water. Those who stick around for the credits might notice that there isn’t a “No Animals Were Harmed” signifier to be seen, and there’s a reason for that as a herd of bison were killed during production. All of a sudden, this film’s lengthy time being delayed from a theatrical release is starting to make a bit more sense.
Getting away from the… unfortunate events that went into making this film (and let’s be clear, I’m not exactly ignoring what happened on these people’s watch), the main connection between the main character and the title character ends up creating the bulk of the film’s emotional drive and, ultimately, the film’s primary thematic touches. The story of a boy and his dog is a long-running storytelling cliché, even expanding into the ‘boy and his inhuman companion’ trope that gave birth to films like E.T. and Flight Of The Navigator. However, this film ends up taking that trope as far back as the story itself, looking to get into why exactly canines have become known as ‘man’s best friend’.
Tying back to the depictions of prehistoric Earth in all its violent turbulence, the pairing is depicted as something of a necessity. After all, when you inhabit a space that seems intent on wiping you clean off of its surface, it’s best to make friends where you can. Initially, this feels like it’s tapping into the “alpha dog” or “alpha male” archetype, one that is not only quite modern but also quite bullshit. I don’t have nearly enough time to get into why in this article, but let’s just say that early perceptions of wolf packs would end up giving humanity a lot of weird and dangerous ideas about how themselves should act.

However, that itself isn’t necessary because, rather than nodding to this tired stereotype, it instead focuses on the position of leaders of a given group, those that are meant to keep their fellows from harm and give them shelter from the nightmare that is the natural world. To this end, as we follow both Keda and Alpha across the frost-bitten plains, we see how that nigh-on primal connection between the two species was borne from necessity but maintained out of genuine benefit. This leads us into one of the more striking conclusions of any film this year, wielding Gschlacht’s cinematic eye to create a powerful depiction of how banding together can help us weather any storm.

All in all, this film deserves to be seen just for its visual chops. It is frankly insane how good this looks, both in terms of raw, natural beauty and equally raw and equally savage prehistoric Earth. DOP Martin Gschlacht is officially on my list of cinematographers to watch out for after this one, and I am eagerly anticipating what he brings us next. But beyond just the visuals, the acting from Kodi Smit-McPhee gives yet another reason why the guy is among the cream of the Australian export crop, the soundtrack is killer with Joseph S. DeBeasi bringing a lot of visceral drum work to really bring out the animality of the landscape, and while the writing could have handled its own constructed language with a bit more finesse, the thematic work underneath that shows a lot of commitment to not only showing the perils of the time but also something of an origin story for one of our strongest inter-species connections. Sure, those same connections resulted in some tragic and unnecessary things happening during the film’s production, but much like Sausage Party, I’m struggling to hate the filmmakers too much for their ills when their efforts are this freaking effective.

This ranks higher than Upgrade, as the brand of grim humanity on display here not only appeals to a more innate and primal part of that humanity but presents it in a way where you’d be crazy not to take note of it. However, as impressive as this is as a visual offering, it still can’t boast the outright disarming emotional qualities of Christopher Robin, a film that is even harder not to take note of it in all its heart-melting efficacy.

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