Hot Take: The made-for-TV version of The Revenant with enough visual bells and whistles to find its way to the cinema.
The oddity of Alpha is the central figure of the film, a wolf named Alpha, is not the main character. Yet the main character, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a boy becoming a man on his first bison hunt with his father during the final days of the Stone Age, falls third behind Alpha and the film’s IMAX-friendly visuals in what you’ll likely find interesting when you sit down and view Alpha. It’s a flawed film which fails to distance itself far enough from 2015 Best Picture nominee The Revenant which sets the bar for man vs. wilderness films even with the addition of a canine sidekick who basically steals the show from the main character. Director Albert Hughes, the more technically talented half of the Hughes Brothers who had worked as a team up until 2010, shows his technical touch in his first film on his own. There’s a stiffness to the performances outside of Alpha who is played by a Czech wolfdog named Chuck. When it comes to Alpha, it’s okay but likely to lose something as the visual spectacle is diminished by the size of the screen and the sound system in the screening.
The film begins with Keda, his father (Johannes Hakur Johannesson) and the tribe of hunters facing down a group of bison. The hunters storm the bison in an attempt to stampede them off a cliff to collect the meat to feed their tribe for the next year. In the hunt, Keda is thrown over the edge by a charging bison and Alpha quickly flashes back to the events leading up to Keda’s fall. The audience quickly learns of Keda’s first foray into the annual hunt with his father and his mother’s (Natassia Malthe) concern he’s not ready. Along the way to the stampede, Keda shows vulnerability as he’s unable to kill a wild boar and the peril of the trail is shown when the other young first timer is taken in the middle of the night by a big cat. Back to the present, Keda is left on the side of a mountain and thought to be dead by his father and the rest of the hunters. Barely hanging on (literally and figuratively), Keda finds his way down the mountain and after re-setting his broken foot and building a homemade splint, he begins his journey home. At one point, he’s forced up a tree by a pack of wolves but in the attack, Keda wounds a wolf who is left behind by the pack. Keda can’t leave behind the injured animal and nurses the wolf back to health. Grateful, the wolf follows by Keda’s side as he tries to get back to his family.
Alpha acts as a de facto origin story for man and man’s best friend. It also feels like The Revenant-lite at times with many scenes mirroring the much more grisly film which earned Leonardo DiCaprio his first Oscar. There’s enough here for a dog lover (if they can look past the numerous more savage scenes of animal violence to “less important” animals like vultures, pigs, rabbits, fish, bison and cats, I guess) or the cinephile more driven by visuals than character. The adequate Alpha should be satisfactory enough to please audiences looking for a man vs. wilderness tale with an affinity for animals… well, at least dogs.
Chuck (the wolfdog that plays Alpha) is a star!
You still haven’t recovered from that bear attack in The Revenant to go back to the unforgiving wilderness.