Alpha is an ambitious film that describes the story of how a young man tamed a wolf. It vividly creates an ancient world, people and their language in bringing this story to life.
The action begins in Europe 20,000 years ago. A group of men are lying flat in the grass facing a herd of prehistoric buffalo. At the command of their leader, they jump and run toward the startled animals as they pursue them with their weapons. Some of the buffalo run toward a nearby precipice and plunge to their doom.
One animal, however, turns and charges Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the son of the chief, Tau (Johannes Haukur Johannesson). Instead of standing his ground and facing the beast, Keda flees and is thrown into the air. When the buffalo returns, Keda becomes entangled in its horns as it runs to the cliffside. As he is shaken loose and falls to his apparent death, the film flashes back to an initiation ceremony for Keda and other youth as they prepare for their first hunt.
The relationships with Keda and his family are revealed as the tribe’s hunters prepare for their long journey. They are guided by cairns set up by their ancestors. Tau and Keda have a chance to talk about being a good leader and what it means to be the “alpha.”
Keda’s mother had worried that his heart might interfere with him becoming a great hunter, and indeed he is unable to slit the throat of a wild boar when it is captured by the group. Along the way, wolves surround the men at night. One swoops in suddenly and takes a hunter to his doom.
As we return to the present, Keda ends up gripping the side of the cliff before falling flat on his back onto a ledge far enough down that it is impossible to rescue him. Tau mourns his son, but eventually realizes that Keda must be left for the good of the tribe as they prepare to go home with the spoils of the hunt.
Keda awakens when a vulture lands on him for dinner. His foot seems to be broken, and as he tries to descend the cliff by hand, he plummets into the stream below and is washed downstream. He fixes his injury to the best of his ability. As he heals, a group of wolves tree him and he manages to injure one severely enough that it lies motionless. After the other wolves leave, Keda begins his relationship with this wolf, eventually christened “Alpha,” as he tries to journey home.
I was quite surprised from the opening scene when the dialogue spoken was that of the ancient tribe. Thus subtitles are needed for translation’s sake. I find this to be a daring move in a family film where pre-literate children may be attending.
On the one hand, I appreciate the fact that the screenwriter, Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt, did not pander to the audience by using some kind of horribly-accented, primitive English, but rather created a language for the tribe. This seems incredibly ambitious to me. It gives young children the chance to be exposed to what life might really have been like 20000 years ago.
But on the flip side, there is the reality that a segment of the audience might not be able to tell what is going on. This does give parents of very young children the chance to either read the translation or just talk about what is going on. In a theatrical setting this could be annoying to other viewers. But it is perfect for home viewing.
The creation of the language for the tribe parallels the creation of the communication that is established between Keda and Alpha, a wild animal. We see trust grow as the wolf is healed and Keda becomes a provider of food and water. This leads to the first primitive commands.
Most of the film is wordless. Filmed in Alberta, the cinematography is spectacular. You can sense the harshness and the beauty of the world that the tribe finds itself in. As Keda journeys home with Alpha, time’s passage is denoted by changes in the weather and landscape, not by talk.
These emphases on action and visuals, as opposed to dialogue, are what movies are ideally suited to do. The director, Albert Hughes, also directed “The Book of Eli,” another film about a journey. His vision in this picture is daring.
Smit-McPhee as Keda and Chuck as Alpha are the two main actors in this story. The others have brief roles. Smit-McPhee does an excellent job portraying the experience of someone separated from his group. As Tau, his father, Johannesson is appropriately patriarchal and loving. All of the other parts are too small to warrant mention, although the shaman has interesting costumes.
I felt that the journey in the film was a bit too long, but I will admit that I was never bored. Other flaws involve, firstly, the fall onto the ledge. It was such a drop that I feel that Keda would have broken his back. Secondly, in a later scene, Keda would probably have died of hypothermia rather than live.
This is an imaginative take on the story of how humans and dogs first became connected. The nice thing is that it does not presume that this was a unique development but also could have happened in a parallel way in other cultures around this time.
As a family film, the themes of becoming your own person, how to handle fear and doubt, and how to survive provide plenty to discuss. Even though the movie uses subtitles, they are rare as most of the picture consists of actions not words.
I would normally have given this film a three, but I am giving it an extra half-star for creating its own language and for its daring in the execution of this story.
Rating: Three and a half out of five stars
An epic adventure set in the last Ice Age, ALPHA tells a fascinating, visually stunning story that shines a light on the origins of man’s best friend. While on his first hunt with his tribe’s most elite group, a young man is injured and must learn to survive alone in the wilderness. Reluctantly taming a lone wolf abandoned by its pack, the pair learn to rely on each other and become unlikely allies, enduring countless dangers and overwhelming odds in order to find their way home before winter arrives.
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson
Directed by: Albert Hughes
Screenplay by: Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt
Story by: Albert Hughes