Many films have depicted the relationship between a boy and his dog, but none from the perspective of Alpha. Director Albert Hughes (Menace II Society, The Book of Eli) takes us back to the beginning of mankind's most trusted companion. Set at the end of the last Ice Age, Alpha tells the story of how dogs became domesticated. It is a captivating, beautifully shot adventure for all ages.
Alpha opens twenty-thousand years ago in Europe. A small tribe, led by Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), is organizing a crucial bison hunt. His teenage son, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), has finally crafted a spear sturdy and sharp enough to kill. The bison hunt is tremendously dangerous. Keda's mother (Natassia Malthe) does not think he is strong enough for the journey. He has too much heart for the savage quest. Tau loves his son, but will not allow anyone in the tribe to shirk their duty. Without the bison, the tribe will starve in winter.
Keda's first hunt is fraught with peril. Tau teaches him critical survival lessons, but their world is unforgiving and deadly. Keda finds himself injured and alone. As he grapples with the enormity of his situation, the wolves are closing in. Keda's kind heart changes the course of human history. A creature long feared as an enemy, becomes an invaluable ally on Keda's epic voyage home.
The first surprise in Alpha is that the entire film is subtitled. The tribes people communicate in an ancient language. They're not too chatty, but there is significant dialogue between the characters. This focus on the subtitles draws you further into the story. The characters have a surprising amount of depth. While the majority of the scenes are with Keda and the wolf, the human interactions are successful in reinforcing the harsh realities of the environment.
Alpha is a visual feast, incredible to see in the 3D format. The special effects are truly effective in portraying ancient Europe. There are dazzling scenes of woolly mammoths herding under the starry Milky Way. Saber-tooth tigers hunting in glistening ice caves. Crystal rivers cutting through striated bedrock. Albert Hughes' shot selection is akin to a master painter's brush stroke. His remarkable director's eye has been evident in past work like From Hell, but Alpha's staggering cinematic landscapes is a real achievement.
Alpha's plot is simplistic, but not overly so. The story goes where expected, but does it with gravitas. Keda suffers greatly throughout. The script by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt focuses on dire struggle, and how teamwork saves the day. Anyone who's hunted with a dog understands their value. As Keda realizes how to use Alpha's skills, they begin to bond. The fearsome wolf becomes a treasured friend. Alpha is not a prehistoric version of Old Yeller.
Alpha's aim for realism does fall short in a few circumstances. Keda initially has problems starting a fire, but becomes the fire king in short order. Keda cranks out roaring fires, even on a frozen glacier. We're meant to assume he's carrying the fire starting supplies, but it does become unbelievable and silly after a while. I wish the film had not taken this aspect for granted. There are so many good scenes that are cheapened by the quick fires. It's a movie magic complaint. If the entire film is subtitled, and everything else looks realistic, the speedy fires are a distraction.
From Sony Pictures, Alpha has plenty of bite left for the dog days of summer. Albert Hughes elevates this film with great direction. Alpha has a PG-13 rating for violence, but don't let that deter from bringing younger children. Alpha doesn't go overboard in any regard, and depicts important values. Just remember this is pure fiction. Wolves cannot be kept as pets, unless you want your arm bitten off.