October 20th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Internal strife at Fortress ABC by Peter Westmore

EDITORIAL The state is separating children from families

CANBERRA OBSERVED Liberals are bare favourites for Wentworth

DEREGULATION Sugar growers are getting burned on churned-up playing field

EUROPE Attempt to discipline Hungary divides the EU

CHINA Social Credit System gives complete control of every citizen

EDUCATION Curriculum refinements will not fix schools

BANKING ROYAL COMMISSION Banks' failures are a symptom of social malaise

HISTORY Moby Dick and American exceptionalism

SHAKESPEARE Tick-tock: clues to the timeless appear of the Bard

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Trump to UN: we'll do it our way; you do it yours

MUSIC Well-tempered scale: might put an alien in a bad temper

CINEMA Alpha: Beautiful beginnings

BOOK REVIEW Essays towards reconstruction

BOOK REVIEW Can society survive the decay of religion?


CLIMATE CHANGE Hockey 1, hockey 2: Good science contradicts IPCC's two-degree alarmism

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Alpha: Beautiful beginnings

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, October 20, 2018

It used to be more common, or at least more noticeable, for mainstream cinema to delight in cinema’s visual nature, treating the screen much as a painter would a canvas. Such artistry would not be at the expense of the story but would build upon it, making it richer.

This attitude has become less common, so much so that when a mainstream film comes out with a strong story and beautiful imagery it is well worth noting. Such is the case of the sumptuous and riveting Alpha.

Twenty-thousand years ago in Europe, a group of hunters are preparing to drive a herd of bison over a cliff, thus providing their tribes with the food to get them through the winter. All is going to plan when one of the “great beasts” charges at one young hunter, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and succeeds at throwing him off the cliff, despite being speared, to the horror of his father and chief, Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson).

As Keda falls, we flash back one week as the hunters ready themselves for their trek. Keda is one of two young men of the tribe selected, based on their spearhead crafting ability. His mother Rho (Natassia Malthe) is worried for him, worried that “he leads with his heart, not his spear”; but his father is confident that given the chance Keda will prove himself.

They traverse the land to the ancient hunting ground, meeting up with another tribe led by Xi (Jens Hultén) – a chief who has already lost his own son. Along the way, Keda shows his youth – he is too impatient to light a fire with a hand drill, and too squeamish to kill a boar – but his father still has faith in him and teaches him as they go.

The hunt and the fall are replayed and we see Keda on a ledge – seemingly dead and his father distraught. After preparing the bison, the tribes depart and Keda awakes, washed off the ledge and onto the ground, his leg broken. While escaping from a pack of wolves he wounds one of them. He cannot bring himself to kill it and so nurtures it back to health while he too recovers. In the process he tames the wolf, naming it Alpha and the two begin to make the harrowing trek home.

Alpha is a surprising film. It is a mainstream cinema release seemingly aimed at families, but it is one in which the dialogue is entirely in a fictional language and, as a result, subtitled. It is an adventure film that is shot like a European arthouse picture of another era. And it is a simple film driven solely by the need to survive, unmired in subplots and complexities.

This very simplicity, this elegance in plotting, allows the filmmakers to craft an unashamedly cinematic experience. This experience is suffused with awe and wonder at the natural world – a world that is so much bigger and more terrible and more beautiful than we can imagine. It is not just a joy that comes from nature itself, but a joy that comes from our ability to appreciate nature, to see the beauty that is present. Humanity is not just an add-on in the world, but is the only way this majesty can be experienced.

This sense of wonder has largely disappeared from mainstream cinema. Partly this is probably due to the rise of computer-generated spectacle in which the action is paramount. But it is also probably due to the loss of the sense of the beautiful in the world of art.

The Renaissance introduced an idea of the beautiful in art that, while flawed, is now disappearing. “Art” is now focused on a naturalism that privileges an aesthetic of sordidness and confuses grime for gravitas, or an intellectual cleverness accessible only to an elite. Simple delight in the wonder of the world as an experience that has something transcendent to it is largely gone – at least in the mind of most art makers.

This is not to say that it is gone from life itself, as anyone who looks at a sunset or a lightning storm or a smiling baby knows, but that those whose role is to capture such things no longer see it – or at least no longer see it as worthy of capturing.

Nor is it to say that painterly or poetic films are necessarily good ones – after all, good pictures do not a good story make and many “artistic” films were more style than substance – but without such wonder, we are often left with little more than humanistic despair.

Alpha is a film about hope: hope in survival, hope in humanity and hope in the wonder of creation. And by being beautiful, it has hope in beauty itself.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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