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Very enjoyable and visually impressive.

Alpha’s not the movie that most moviegoers have been waiting desperately all summer long to see and it’s sliding into theaters with comparatively little fanfare – it’s certainly not the leader of the pack when it comes to the season’s major studios releases. That said, don’t dismiss this as a dud that the studio is trying to hide or purely a family movie aimed at being little more than a distraction for kids at the tail end of their school holidays.

Directed by Albert Hughes and set in the Ice Age, Alpha is the story of a young man, Keda (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who is left for dead by his tribe when his first hunt goes wrong and tries to survive alone in the wilderness. Befriending a lone wolf abandoned by its own pack, they set off together to make it home before the harsh winter kicks in, facing various hurdles and strengthening their bond.

Alpha is a movie that you need to see with all the bells and whistles available, Dolby Cinema, in 3D, on the biggest IMAX screen possible, because this kind of movie is made for that kind of viewing environment. The sheer scale of what is on screen, the scope of the landscapes, all the elements that catch the elements from fireflies and stars in the sky to the howling winds and the booming storms — it’s a heady cacophony that brings the striking visuals to life in a visceral way and will wow. If you’re going to watch this, the theater is the best place to catch it because anything other than the big screen won’t do it justice. While these are all major pluses, Alpha does also feel a bit like an extended version of an IMAX movie that you might find at a natural history museum meant to accompany an exhibit. That’s not so much of a criticism but more of a general observation.

As far as performances go, they’re fine and the dialogue, what there is of it, is simple but effective. With this kind of thing you might expect deep and meaningful monologues about the harshness of life but what you’ll get here are considered statements and adequate emoting. But, to be honest, Alpha’s not about the dialogue or even the supporting cast who do a great job, it’s all about Keda and his canine companion. Everything about it fundamentally works, including the simple narrative, which makes the movie an engaging win overall. Another big win for Alpha is the fact that, considering all the key elements, there isn’t really anything out there like this right now and that’s refreshing.

There are, however, a few issues. Alpha’s littered with tense set-pieces but they are often too short so they’re over before you get too far towards the edge of your seat or, for some reason, they don’t quite reach the level of peril they point to once they arrive. Hughes could have pushed the PG-13 rating a bit harder to add an extra edge. In between them there are some very nice moments where Keda and Alpha are learning about each other and you can see and feel the bond forming. They all stay on the right side of saccharine and come off as genuine. Either the dog is a great animal actor or they did genuinely bond.

Alpha (think Bear Grylls’ meets The Incredible Journey: Ice Age Edition) is a welcome end of summer surprise that will tug at the heartstrings and delivers a visual spectacle that will wow. It’s just a shame that it tips more towards spectacle over substance.

The Verdict

Alpha wins where the sheer scale and the right-side-of-saccharine moments kick in and while the thrills hit there aren’t enough to quite tip this into the thrilling adventure it could have been. Very enjoyable and visually impressive, it’s got heart but that heart’s not quite as big as it could be and it doesn’t beat quite as hard as it should do.


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