More than just a prehistoric primal survival saga, Alpha also is a heartwarming tale of loyalty and companionship between two lost souls that transcends time and place.
That it succeeds both ways is a credit to this visually striking adventure from director Albert Hughes (Menace II Society) that provides a feast for the senses even when the story feels stuck in the past.
Set in Europe about 20,000 years ago, the film sets a visceral and immersive tone with its dynamic opening sequence, featuring a stirring confrontation between hunters and bison on a prairie. The fierce battle ends badly for the animals, but also for Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), teenage son of the tribal chief (Johannes Haukur Johannesson), whose participation is part of his initiations and rites of passage.
As Keda hovers perilously close to a steep cliff, an extended flashback interrupts the action and gives context to the father-son relationship soon to be torn apart. After the tribe presumes the timid youngster’s death in the chaos, he’s forced to survive in the wilderness, with the hope of finding his way back home before winter. He cautiously finds his only ally in Alpha, a wolf separated from his pack and likewise abandoned.
The film is the first for Hughes in eight years, and his first solo directorial effort without his twin brother, Allen. It’s a confident and technically polished work, between the remote yet scenic landscapes (shot in western Canada) to the constantly swirling camera to the seamless special effects.
The committed performance by Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) conveys the conflicted emotions of a young man reluctant to merely accept traditions and conformity, yet lacking the courage to forge his own path in the harsh environment.
The screenplay is more problematic, straining credibility in its depiction of canine heroism and resilience against all odds. The momentum is uneven and the dialogue is clichéd and pedantic, at least as translated via subtitles from the film’s primitive language.
At its core, Alpha is a coming-of-age story about a boy and his dog (or wolf, technically). Despite a predictable narrative arc, at least the film shows some ingenuity and originality amid the perpetual glut of sequels and retreads. It’s got both bark and bite.