Synopsis – In the prehistoric past, a young man struggles to return home after being separated from his tribe during a buffalo hunt. He finds a similarly lost wolf companion, and starts a friendship that would change humanity.
My Take – Over the years many theories have been made surrounding how the relationships between human and dog actually came to be. While some argue that wolves hungry for an easy meal, approached human camps and eventually learned how to behave around humans to survive. Here, this film in question instead makes a case for co-evolution where both parties survived together for their mutual needs, except the film presents itself as the first such story in human history. While we have witnessed the release of such films over the decades aimed specially towards the dog loving audience, I can assure you, that there has nothing been made like this Albert Hughes (The Book of Eli) directed film before.
While its release date push-backs and drastic changes in its marketing, might have caused concerns (including myself) for this one to be a total disaster, I am surprised to say it actually is not. Instead, this highly speculative prequel to every boy and his dog film, acquits itself not only as a gripping survival saga, but also as a sentimental coming of age account of how a teenager tames a wolf. Here, director Albert Hughes has done a superb job of drawing all the elements together to make the story authentic as well as compelling, and although it takes place 20,000 years ago, its themes of familial love, faith and friendship will still resonate with modern viewers.
While the film is simple in plot, it is produced on an epic scale, and perfectly captures how the Earth would feel and look like 20,000 years ago with some stunning cinematography. Although the gruesome, often unnecessarily graphic hunt scenes will leave even the most courageous adults shutting their tear-filled eyes, many of the film’s moments are emotive enough to shine through.
Set in Europe 20,000 years ago, the story follows Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the son of the chieftain who is all set to join his father Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) and a group of hunters to go out on an expedition to hunt for bison before the winter comes. While Tua has earned respect from everyone in the tribe for his wise yet stern nature, his wife, Nu (Mercedes de la Zerda) believes that their son lacks his father’s steely strength and is more kind in nature.
Things take an even more dramatic turn when, during the hunt itself, a bison knocks Keda off a cliff. Believing that his son is dead, a shattered Tau is persuaded to leave, unknown to the fact that Keda did indeed survive the fall. Using rudimentary tools to make fire and to hunt, Keda comes across a pack of wolves which he chases away, but ends up injuring the Alpha of the pack in the process. Feeling empathy for the dying animal, Keda instead helps the wolf to recover, hereby forming an unexpected and unlikely alliance, a bond he must rely on to go on a hundred or so mile journey to find his way home as the winter begins closing in.
Yes, the story is not the most unique, and is quite predictable thanks to the trailers. This one is basically like a plot of a family-friendly Disney-style film, peppered with heartwarming moments of connection and growth and discovery. But on the other hand, this one has an original take on it. Though the film is definitely sentimental and even pandering at times, there’s something delightfully clever in a narrative that is easily transferable to modern times. Its unexpected setting, images, set pieces, and even language balance out the sentimentality with a strangely raw and cinematic adventurous aesthetic that’s uncommon for a film of its sort. But it is very clear from the very first scene that this film is not a particularly family-friendly film, as it opens with a terrifyingly realistic bison hunt, a gory beginning that foreshadows the death and brutality that punctuate the film.
In fact, the vehement violence might be the only constant in the feature; most of the picture is an emotionally exhausting sequence of suspense, love and bereavement that lacks focus on any one moment. The jumpiness of the piece is a double-edged sword: although the piece may be overbearingly action-packed at times, it remains exciting and adrenaline-filled for all of its 96 minutes. This one is also a rare film that dares to imagine that American audiences are willing to sit in a multiplex and read English subtitles, since the members of the clan, who already don’t utter much dialogue, speak in an unidentified prehistoric language (invented for the film). An interesting choice, not to mention a pretty ballsy one, which pays off, making everything feel more realistic and adding to the immersive experience of the film.
But in the end this is a film about atmosphere, ideas and visuals, and in that category it succeeds wonderfully. As the most visually striking film since Life of Pi there’s a lyrical harshness to the visuals that suits the story. The film is all about recreating the primal world of the wondering nomads, which involves a lot of imagination, design, and CGI to bring it to life. The film gets props from me because they accomplished the recreation in a very detailed manner. First the environments and natural phenomena are dazzling, fun, and furious as the special effects combine to unleash the nightmares that disasters hold.
Second the animals of the world are also nicely animated, from the rugged texture of the skin, to the fluid movement of their grazing, hunting, and fleeing. Sure, it hits moments where it crosses into the fake looking zone, but overall a nice display indeed. Much of the film was shot in British Columbia and Alberta, and the cinematography is glorious throughout, evoking a time when humans were minor players in a world of forbidding landscapes and fearsome predators. The film is shot in 3D, usually an unnecessary frill, but director Hughes uses it with commendable restraint, injecting a subtle magic to birds in flight, fog and sunlight and clouds of dust.
The greatest strength of the first section of the film lies mostly in its arty and even fantastical images. The wide vistas, flickering firelight, slow-motion herds of charging animals make the film seem better suited for IMAX screens and planetarium projection at science museums than just a film theater. There is a lot of small things that happen in big vistas and as such they are infused with dramatic weight. There’s several shots that I would like to frame. As a parable this sort of directorial style works very well.
However, the biggest flaw of the film is how it felt quite patchy in some scenes. Some of the shots seemed to have blended together in a very rushed presentation, where things suddenly happen, without any fluid buildup resulting in all the predictable plot devices to fall into place too fast. While the technique did amp up the pace of the survival film, it would have been nice to see some more entertaining components to piece it together.
Coming to the performances, without a doubt the entire film relies on Kodi Smit-McPhee to perform, and the young actor more than pulls it off. Smit-McPhee, who has been making the most of his rather unusual appearance in titles from The Road (2009) to his appearance as a young Nightcrawler in X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), commands the screen alongside his wolf companion, giving his most complete performance yet. Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson also has some very impactful and emotional scenes as Tau, and we really liked his performance as Keda’s father. We completely sympathize with him when he thinks he has lost his son, and Jóhannesson never overdoes it. Mercedes de la Zerda too plays her part well. On the whole, ‘Alpha’ is a visually stunning historical adventure film which despite it predictability manages to be dramatic, tense and ultimately uplifting.
Directed – Albert Hughes
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 96 minutes