This piece will stand as my official Oscar bid for Chuck, the dog, to get a nomination for best supporting actor. After the recent news about Best Popular Film, it is time to get a dog nominated for supporting actor now.
Chuck stars in 2018’s Alpha, directed by Albert Hughes. Hughes made what may be this year’s best combination of video game cutscenes. What it lacks in character and story it makes up for with a surprisingly pleasant bare-boned filmmaking approach. Alpha approaches the end-of-summer-blockbuster with some decent visual oomph but leaves you asking if this would have been served better as a product on YouTube under ‘compilation of all the cutscenes from a video game.”
Following his mixed bag of very bad, okay, and great that was The Book of Eli, Hughes tries to break down the origin story of man’s relationship with canines. Like Eli, Alpha makes some bold and intriguing decisions. The film actually manages to pull out some pleasant and welcome surprises in cinematography and simplicity. This comes at a time when many movies nowadays seem to take the cautious path rather than the risky one. In Alpha, this results in some real lulls, and some touching emotional moments that creep up on you like a sabertooth late at night around the fire.
The real strengths of Alpha lie in its visual flair. Taking some heavy notes from John Ford about horizons, there seems to always be another story in the background being told by the horizon and its positioning.
Outside of the visuals, Alpha falls relatively numb. The plot is predictable, not terrible, but leaves little to wonder, and the characters are drawn together about as well as a cave painting. The star, or should I say the human star—the real star is the half-dog, half-wolf Chuck—is Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who really had an uphill battle in this one to have control of the screen when it was him and Alpha. I mean, Alpha is seriously good in this. I had moments of real question and doubt about when Alpha was CGI and when it was Chuck.
And finally comes the themes of Alpha. Keda, a chief’s son who is thrown into the fire of the hunt, lacks the drive, the courage, the ‘alpha’ mentality to be a man. And this may be the actual saving grace of the film. Alpha had a chance to go a route for an ending that may have caused as much uproar as the ending for The Book of Eli, and this is surprising considering Hughes’ past films. Making Alpha a real character rather than just going the cheap way and having Alpha be a spiritual element of Keda is probably the best non-decision decision in the entire film.
Alpha falls on the ‘better’ end of the 2018 summer blockbuster side but may fall the way of being a forgotten gem of the year. With surprisingly complex visuals and cinematography and a supporting actor performance that demands a nomination, Hughes delivers something different if you aren’t looking for Statham/Wahlberg machismo or want a slow down from Cruise adrenaline. Alpha is out this weekend nationwide.