Despite some familiar story beats, Alpha puts a novel, prehistoric spin on the classic tale of canine friendship, along with some stunning visuals.
Alpha doesn’t seem like the typical Albert Hughes film -the idea that a man who’s made a name for himself by directing urban crime thrillers like Menace 2 Society and From Hell would make a movie about a prehistoric youth befriending a wild wolf in a movie feels a little preposterous. Even more surprising is that the story is told entirely in a constructed language with subtitles (though I should have seen that coming when the trailers didn’t feature any dialogue from the movie). Most surprising of all is that, despite its flaws, there’s a lot to like.
Alpha takes place in Europe about 20,000 years ago and follows Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the son of his tribe’s chief (Tau, played by Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) who is embarking on his first hunting trip with the tribal warriors. As the group forces a herd of prehistoric bison off a cliff, Keda is attacked by an angry buffalo, and thrown off the ledge. The hunters take him for dead, but the young man miraculously survives the fall with little more than an injured foot. As Keda searches for shelter, he is attacked by wolves, but manages to fend them off and wounds one. Despite his misgivings, the boy decides to nurse the wolf back to health, and the pair eventually bond – with Keda naming the wolf “Alpha”. However, winter is coming, and Keda and Alpha will need to work together if they’re going to survive the trek home.
The plot is a standard mix of tropes found in narratives about surviving the wild and finding your way home. Anyone who’s seen these types of movies can guess the story beats from the first scene with almost 100% accuracy. We know that when Keda fails at something with his tribe, he will succeed at it when he’s in the wild; we know that Keda and Alpha will split up but reunite; we know Alpha will save Keda and be injured in the process; and we know that Keda will almost give up before reaching home. In fact, the one twist in the film is also predictable. To be fair, these tropes are popular for a reason, and some of them are even necessary for the story, but when a film does nothing new with its story, it makes the stakes practically non-existent.
Much like its overly familiar plot, Alpha is populated by a cast of stock characters. Keda is tender-hearted, yet strong, his father is patient and wise, and his mother (Natassia Malthe) has no personality other than maternal worry. As for the tribe, well…I guess they’re nice. Outside of an initiation ritual where the young men are beaten by their elders, the tribe gets along perfectly. One moment when Keda’s tribe meets another group of hunters is diffused almost immediately when it turns out that Keda’s father is friends with the other tribe’s leader, Xi (Jens Hultén). This leads to a full first act where the only exciting moment (other than the buffalo hunt) is a scene where a hunter is killed by a saber-toothed tiger.
Despite the lackluster characterization, the performances in Alpha range from passable to good. This is especially commendable given the fact that the dialogue is entirely in a constructed language. Despite this, none of the actors feel wooden or awkward with this unfamiliar tongue. Johannesson is a particular standout, playing the chief with a necessary gruffness that never veers into stoicism, unafraid to let the character be vulnerable. The scene where Tau accepts that Keda is most likely dead is extremely effective, with Tau shaking as he stacks a commemorative cairn, barely able to control his sobs as he recites a prayer for his child.
By necessity, this film is carried by Smit-McPhee’s performance and his chemistry with Alpha. The pair’s chemistry evolves naturally from trepidation, to a funny testing of boundaries (a particularly humorous scene involves Keda’s attempts at frightening Alpha with a stick inadvertently turning into a game of fetch), to a heartwarming friendship. While Smit-McPhee’s performance is a big factor in this chemistry, a larger part of the charm comes from Chuck, the dog who plays Alpha. Alpha’s interaction with Keda never comes across as fake, and while I’m sure that digital effects helped with the naturalism, it’s telling that I couldn’t tell what was CG and what came from the dog.
Outside of the chemistry between the main pair, the biggest draw for this movie comes from its visuals. The film opens with breathtaking panoramic vistas of the last ice age, and every shot that follows keeps the high standard of interesting visuals. in the film was screened for critics in IMAX 3D, which gives the cinematography depth and vibrancy, and is absolutely the best way to see this movie. The film focuses mostly on the pristine beauty of nature mostly untouched by human hands, with scene transitioning via montages of lightning, clouds, starry skies, and even the formation of ice crystals. Like the natural phenomenon they capture, the camera has a hard time staying still, with one particular scene where the camera swoops from a fire to the Milky Way in a way that is dangerously close to inducing motion sickness.
That isn’t to say that the visuals are always that extreme. In a scene where Keda has fallen into an icy lake, there is a beautifully composed shot of Alpha above the ice standing against a pink-white sky while Keda flounders in the deep blue water that brings a moment of tranquility to an otherwise fast-paced scene. In another particularly subtle shot, one of the hunters is poised to start his assault on the buffalo when he notices some ants crawling on his hand, which he promptly eats. It’s quick, but it tells you so much about the character and the world he lives in – the film would benefit from more moments like that.
Especially given the price of IMAX tickets, it’s hard to figure out Alpha’s primary audience. It’s too predictable for cinephiles, but too violent for parents to take their kids to see the funny dog movie. Also, it’s too gorgeous for Netflix, and those visuals shouldn’t be wasted on a laptop screen. Honestly, the real potential for this film might be in field trips – cut this movie to 45 minutes, and put it in the Field Museum’s IMAX theatre, and Keda and Alpha would find their perfect home.
Alpha chases its own tail into theaters August 17.