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Alpha review - a stirring, beautiful story of survival and friendship


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Verdict: Alpha is a straightforward and predictable tale of survival and the bond between man and beast - but breath-taking visuals and just enough emotional heft make it a journey well worth the time.

The preview screening I attended was dog-friendly, meaning that there were several wonderful dogs in attendance. Fortunately, there were only two instances of sporadic barking during tense, dramatic moments - the dogs waited until the end credits to launch a chorus of barks and howls.

They were probably voicing their approval, since Alpha is a pretty good movie.

The story centres on a  young would-be hunter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) 20,000 years ago. Injured and left for dead by his tribe in the aftermath of his first hunt, he faces a long and perilous journey home. Along the way, he befriends a wolf which, as Morgan Freeman's narration informs us, marks the start of the bond between man and canine.

Yes, apparently in the year of our Lord 2018, and even after the sexual harrassment accusations, there are still movies made that unironically have Morgan Freeman narrating them. His awesome voice is such a meme at this point that it's genuinely odd when something like this happens.

Back to the movie - Alpha isn't the kind of story that will wow you with shocking twists and ground-breaking ideas. You can probably see most of the big emotional and narrative beats coming a mile away (especially if you see the trailers that practically contain all of them).

The main selling point here is the truly spectacular cinematography. Large, sweeping landscapes that are just begging to be seen on a big screen.

One sequence in which Keda is trapped beneath the icy surface of a lake contains one of the year's most beautifully composed and stunning shots. Very minimal and highly effective.

Another memorable moment involves a stunning transition from a breath-taking shot of the night sky to a roaring campfire. It reminded me of a similar moment in last year's brilliant Blade Runner 2049.

Alpha also succeeds in making you get attached to the hunter Keda and his wolf. That little bit of emotional incentive anchors the story and keeps it from being just hollow spectacle. It's the living, beating heart of the movie.

Smit-MchPhee does a great job, finding the right balance between the vulnerability (both emotionally and physically) of his character and the strength of his resolve.

It takes a while before we get to the story of Keda and the wolf. The introduction with the tribe runs a bit too long, especially since the movie opens with a flash forward to the hunt itself. The longer intro could have worked better if they used that time to really flesh out the connection between Keda and his tribe and family, but in the end the character work is fairly basic stuff.

There is one other small hiccup in the story, involving Keda and the wolf becoming temporarily separated. It's a clunkily inserted piece of setup that's necessary to make the ending 'twist' work.

Occasional CGI is used to pull off some of the trickier and more complicated sequences involving animals and while you can tell it's an effect, it's definitely not obtrusive or immersion breaking.

Alpha is a solid movie that does exactly what it (and Morgan Freeman) says on the tin. It also helps tremendously that it's a very beautiful, picturesque tin.

Alpha is out in UK cinemas on August 24th.

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