Alpha Rift review: This underrated sci-fi indie is Camelot for gamers
This imaginative time-travel adventure will win over fans of sci-fi and fantasy.
Alpha Rift feels like it begins twice. In the movie’s opening sequence, two people, dressed in knight gear, are locked in a duel, their swords clanging against each other as guards infringe upon them. It's a breathlessly intense way to begin a film, but it also leaves us with two rather important questions: Who are these people? And why are they fighting?
The following scene doesn’t hold the answer. Instead, we see a group of robbers break into a vault filled with various valuables that make the entire safe look like the contents of someone's buried treasure. The robbers seem to be on a specific mission, looking for certain coins and are largely uninterested in anything else until one of them picks up a glowing, green egg-shaped item. Again, what is going on?
Director Dan Lantz, who also wrote the screenplay, is in no great hurry to let you know what's happening in Alpha Rift, which is now playing in select theaters and Video OnDemand. Lantz’s choice to open the film with two inexplicable scenes is an effective way to keep an audience enticed but runs the risk of alienating others. Roughly around the half-hour mark of the movie, Lantz starts to bring things into a clearer perspective.
Audiences who gravitate towards fantasy films will enjoy the Alpha Rift’s spirit, which is a celebration of a game-loving community. It’s a good-natured film that sometimes lacks real substance, but it offers just enough innocent escapism to supersede the script’s flaws.
Alpha Rift shifts into focus when it introduces its protagonist Nolan (Aaron Dalla Villa). He owns a game store, where people come and play their favorite games, and mothers admire him from across the store. One day, a mysterious package containing a knight's helmet is delivered to the store, but Nolan ignores it until he finally puts it on and something strange happens to him. Confused and disoriented, the helmet ultimately leads him to Corbin (Lance Henriksen), who informs Nolan there might be more meaning to his life than he could have ever expected.
As Alpha Rift goes on, more about Nolan's past comes to light and shocks no one more than Nolan himself. It's hard for Nolan to believe what Corbin is selling him because it would give some real-world credibility to the games people obsess over at his store, including his friend Lewis (Christopher Ullrich), who treats game mythos as the stuff of legend. He's about to find out Lewis maybe isn't entirely out of his mind.
Young adult adventures have been a staple of moviegoing for some time now and have been the inspiration for many successful franchises. It seems the era of devotedly attended, billion-dollar young adult series are in the past. (Think of the Harry Potter, Twilight, or The Hunger Games movies as the major staples of the lucrative young adult market.) The refreshing part about Alpha Rift is that it's an entirely original screenplay by Lantz, which shows the breadth of his imagination in creating this world.
The movie's original concept eventually presents a frustrating dichotomy. The first act sets up the story with ambiguity and a well-crafted creative premise, only to sink into the tried-and-true tropes that come with the genre. Nolan is the unsuspecting target of a greater power's agenda and whisked into their orbit in the hopes of achieving a means beyond his comprehension. He's not given many options, and his efforts to walk away are futile because he has been chosen. Corbin even asks him, "Do you believe in destiny?" Cue the training montages and Nolan's existential reckoning.
It's unclear if Lantz is knowingly winking at adventure film clichés, embracing them, or paying homage to them. Lewis is the most excited about Nolan's new life and is asked to guard the store while Nolan is gone. It makes him feel like he's a part of something, even exclaiming, "I'm in the middle of a legit origin story!" It feels like Lantz is pointing to the fact he knows it's hard to create something entirely new out of a well-traversed landscape. It certainly is, but pointing that out isn't always the best way to excuse Alpha Rift's more mundane aspects.
Alpha Rift's story does fall short in these more stereotypical sections of the movie, but Lantz has such affection for these characters and inherent energy to his filmmaking style. Villa's good, if unpolished, performance makes for a sympathetic tour guide through Lantz's fantastical world. He's paired with Rachel Nielsen's Gabby, Nolan's fiercely protective and supportive friend, and accompanies him on his journey. Their sweet will-they-won't-they relationship offers some comedic misunderstandings around the game store.
As a more independent-minded movie, the worldbuilding in Alpha Rift presents itself as a movie with aspirations beyond just one installment. It's unlikely to happen for a film flying below the radar, but Lantz has shown glimpses of what his inventiveness is capable of and got the less interesting meet-and-greet part of the genre out of the way. Alpha Rift might be silly and forgettable, but one can't help feeling Lantz's desire to explore these characters further in a sequel.
Alpha Rift arrives in select theaters and OnDemand on November 19.