Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Survival stories are as old as storytelling itself. One person battling the elements to get home is a universal tale. As is the idea of a human and an animal bonding over a long journey. Alpha (90 minutes, minus the end credits), set in Europe 20,000 years ago, combines these two stories in a visually beautiful film with little dialogue (what dialogue it has is in a prehistoric language with English subtitles). Stretches are enormously compelling. A few scenes simplify the relationship between the two main characters a bit too much and there are moments that do not come off as dramatic as they should be. However, Alpha at its best can be absolutely stunning.
The protagonist is Keda, the son of his tribe’s chief. At the beginning of the film, his father is training him to become a hunter. On his first hunt, Keda is injured. Assuming him dead, his tribe leaves him. After coming to, Keda sets off on his difficult solo trek home. Along the way he is attacked by a pack of wolves, wounding one of them. Instead of killing it, Keda chooses to nurse the wolf back to health, thus starting a tentative friendship.
The story itself is okay, if very predictable. What makes Alpha worth seeing, and worth seeing on the big screen, is the beauty of its landscape as well as the visceral thrills of some of its action sequences. Due to the scarcity of its verbal language, director Albert Hughes (making his first film without his brother, Allen) relies a lot on the cinematography by Martin Gschlacht, which perfectly captures the size and magnificence of the forbidding land Keda needs to traverse. There are many wide shots showing just how small and insignificant he is in comparison to it. It is truly awe-inspiring.
Also fitting that description are some of the scenes of Keda fighting to survive alongside his canine companion. Kodi Smit-McPhee is the sole human being on-screen for a large chunk of the running time. Not only does he have to carry the narrative, he has to establish his relationship with the wolf. Keda is going to have enough trouble making it home on his own without having to worry about this creature. Smit-McPhee makes it convincing. Keda is a trained hunter, yet he is also lonely. In the wolf he sees another hunter who has been left by his pack. They are kindred spirits. This adds an emotional component to the story, which does not always connect.
What does connect is the action. It is easy to sympathize with Keda’s plight so the majority of the action is exciting and suspenseful. There is a simplicity in the concept of man versus nature. There are no villains or complicated plots. Keda and the animals he comes across are both trying to stay alive and sometimes that puts them at odds. When the camera just watches him as he uses his training to get out of a scary situation it can be as thrilling as a sequence of this type can be. There is a scene on the ice that I knew was coming and it still had me on the edge of my seat. There are other instances where Hughes gets a little overly clever with the editing, cutting too quickly and causing potentially intense moments to lose their impact.
Alpha is two movies in one. The first is Keda’s quest to return home to his family. The second is, at it says in the trailers, the beginnings of the relationship between men and dogs. The former is far more consistently successful than the latter. There are portions of Alpha that contain great filmmaking. Others seem to be trying too hard to turn this into a family-friendly adventure. Those pieces do not always fit together well. Half of Alpha is fantastic. The rest is decent. But the parts that really work make the whole thing totally worthwhile.
3½ out of 5
Kodi Smit-McPhee as Keda
Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson as Tau
Natassia Malthe as Rho
Leonor Varela as Shaman
Directed by Albert Hughes
Screenplay by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt