Albert Hughes' conventional enemy-become-ally survival tale is one of the most disappointing movies of 2018
Sold as the origin of the relationship that changed humanity forever, Sony Pictures' and Studio 8's pic is an atypical drama hybrid that never takes off or defines itself because of some downy editing techniques, the overly light, straightforward underpinning and a monumental deception on the making of iconic pictures that blame blatant artificiality jam-packed with ostensible visual effects.
In recent years, American majors have taken a clear stance— trade strategy —on the pet-centric drama game. They've settled to produce, at least, one flick with our doggy friends in all posters; some productions were rewarded, others punished. Last year, Universal Pictures took its turn, kicking off the year with a firestorm of controversy ahead, either the misleadingly edited video alleging animal abuse or a dark narrative approach on reincarnation and euthanasia; even with all that, dog-lover filmmaker Lasse Hallström's "A Dog's Purpose" was an unexpectedly profitable hit for everyone involved. The same cannot be said for most of the preceding movies. In 2016, Annapurna Pictures produced "Wiener-Dog" by Todd Solondz, a four-fragmented film that flopped at the box office but wowed most critics who saw it at the Sundance Film Festival. It would be unfair to overlook Illumination-Universal's fiercely blockbusting "The Secret Life of Pets" directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney, receiving a mixed response from critics, but enjoying overwhelming box office results, generating over $850 million worldwide. In 2015, the once-revered film company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released "Max" by Boaz Yakin, whilst the indie company Magnolia Pictures blazed to true victory with "White Dog" by Kornél Mundruczó, the former, even with its melodramatic war background, was a crashing box office and failed to find an audience, whereas the latter became one of the hardest-to-watch films of the season; despite that, the saddest part was the fact of, after its limited theatrical premiere in some film fests and North America, went straight to VOD. It's nonsense to clarify those awkward dog-exploitation entries that don't help this genre in the least, distasteful products just for kids who don't think about it, to take one example: "Robo-Dog" by Jason Murphy.
2018 is no exception. Opening the 68th Berlin International Film Festival and premiering worldwide in late March, this film isn't only one of the best films of the year, but also one of the most important and bold film events for stop-motion. Maestro Wes Anderson's beautiful animated canine political love letter to dogs and Japanese culture deserves a better spot, a better list, hence "Isle of Dogs" has no place here. Rather, big-budget survival "Alpha" is this year's winner to be part of this list of dogs and humans.
More in the vein of Lasse Hallström's tearjerker "Hachi: A Dog's Tale" and the most common American adventure/survival films, this pic uses up its striking possibilities in no time, by opting to insert inorganically moments of dramatic construction in the midst of the protagonist's ceaseless nightmarish experiences. Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt's script is uneven and whimsical, laying bare its only hook: its arty will that uses Ice Age ferocities to shine.
It inaccurately depicts hostility and dangerousness from nomadism only through visual devices, forgetting the key role a good introductory storytelling plays, which, by the way, is abrupt and synthetic kicking off right in a pivotal moment. What's next is a snappish, out-of-place, hurtful timeline switch to end in the starting point once again, which it solves with a fragmented sequence in a disturbing and shameful way that trashes the small narrative construction. From then on, Keda, the main character, will trace his way for survival; and the rest is history.
Even so, the father-son relationship is the heartbeat of the first act, the empathy thread that involves the viewer in the journey, which helps to appreciate a good character design and a couple of great performances.
It's hard to imagine the transition from ferocious predator to friendly ally in the context the film navigates, therefore the wolf-human relationship must be a slow, naturally layered progression, no catalysts breaking that process. Although the script tries its best, loses focus when it clumsily inserts either some action sequences or unfunny moment. At the end of the day, one would expect such a relationship to be stronger, more real and much more credible to do justice to the kind of ancestral tale and demographics it's dealing with, sadly, the only thing the film's cliche close achieves is to become a huge missed opportunity.
Why isn't it a silent film? A bit of a let-down it feels to hear the very first quote, as one would imagine the film is about to attack with all its originality. "A Quiet Place" has revived somewhat silent film in its own way, then, why not? You're right, Krasinski's thriller is a heart-stopping, clever monster movie, whereas Hughes' pic is a manipulative drama, which certainly makes harder its purpose; even so, idealizing this offering, balancing the modern and the traditional, we would be in front of a unique work.
You're in a fine mess, firstly, if you put the best of all your movie into a two-minute-plus trailer with better edition than the whole film, and, secondly, if your distribution company delays release date nearly six months in search of a more appropriate, strategic opening weekend. The first time I saw its official trailer was just before seeing a Sony Pictures film, and oh man, that was a great ride, being fully absorbed by the magnificence and grandeur of Martin Gschlacht's images. Some seconds after, I was wowed and excited about what, at least visually, the film would be. Don't expect more than some specific stunning landscapes and one or two gorgeously designed frames, the "guaranteed" top-notch visuals are severely affected by digital effects you see with half an eye, it's outrageous to know the only real thing on screen is the actor. Many of the pictures with chances for memorability were degraded by an incisive, painful artificiality.
Atmosphere, in this kind of film, is a key feature, even if C.G.I. is constantly all over the place, for this reason, the feeling of defenselessness and latent danger in the first half of the film is sensitive regardless of veracity, immersing the viewer in the experience thanks to beautiful lighting and some tremendous computer-generated imagery. Its action set pieces aren't particularly unforgettable or originally powerful, with the exception of a couple of arresting, sincerely symbolic sequences at the start and end of the film.
"Alpha" by Albert Hughes — his solo feature directorial debut— got moviegoers' hopes up with the flood of marketing pledges, after seeing it, it's no more than a futile epic survival ride that relies heavily on a committed direction and a great performance by Kodi Smit-McPhee, a few visual shocks and the hook any film with a snout in its poster gets for free. A film that gradually gets stuck with fast-and-hollow entertainment, one that fails to break the spell flying over dog-centric drama films, one with no pedigree.