Lone wolvesIt’s 20,000 years ago, in what is present-day Europe. A group of men are setting off on their annual hunt for the Great Beast, namely a herd of bison, whose meat and hides will sustain the tribe for the remainder of the year. Although he’s been at this for a while now, this is a special outing for the chief, Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), because it’s the first time his young son Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) will be hunting by his side.
It’s 20,000 years ago, in what is present-day Europe. A group of men are setting off on their annual hunt for the Great Beast, namely a herd of bison, whose meat and hides will sustain the tribe for the remainder of the year. Although he’s been at this for a while now, this is a special outing for the chief, Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), because it’s the first time his young son Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) will be hunting by his side.
Tau has a lot he wants to teach Keda about the natural world and man’s place in it, about strength, responsibility, courage and leadership. Keen though he is initially to impress Daddy Dearest, Keda turns out to be made of more compassionate, gentler stuff, and falters one too many times on the journey—most notably in slaughtering other creatures—for his father’s liking. “Life is for the strong!” Tau yells at him, frustrated, after one such episode. “You must earn it.”
That idea is soon put to grueling test, because when they finally come upon the bison, one of the animals hauls Keda off a steep cliff. Believing him dead, the hunters convince a devastated Tau to give up on him and return home. Of course, the boy is really just unconscious and when woken up by a hopeful vulture, finds himself abandoned, utterly alone in the wild.
Inching along with an injured leg, and with barely any supplies, the chances of Keda surviving the elements, the predators, and finding his way back home appear very, very slim. Until, that is, he meets Alpha.
If you’ve watched the promos for the new Alpha, directed by Alfred Hughes, or even just taken a gander at the tagline—which describes it as a story about the “origins of man’s best friend”—I’m pretty sure you can fill in the rest from here. It’s a fairly straight forward coming-of-age/survival tale, and it’s obvious from the get-go what’s in store for Keda and his new furry companion. But despite the too-familiar territory, and injections of cheesy, manipulative melodrama—with a cheesy, manipulative score by Joseph S De Beasi to boot—there’s something appealingly earnest here, an old-fashioned innocence that makes the movie difficult to dismiss outright. Even as you know where it’s headed, you still find yourself invested in this odd-couple’s journey.
The building of that bond between Keda and Alpha—though predictable—is communicated wonderfully, as something gradually nurtured and earned, and comprises the film’s most effective bits. The detailing feels authentic and those of us who like and interact with canine friends regularly, or any other species for that matter, will immediately identify with the depiction of how these relationships evolve—and how, once a sense of mutual trust and affection has been established, there are few things more resilient or rewarding. Nowhere is this more beautifully conveyed than in a scene in which our hero has accidentally fallen through a crack in a frozen lake and is struggling to get out while a desperate Alpha scrabbles on the surface, scratching away at the ice to help him.
Seen thus, as a film about the complex, symbiotic relationship between man and nature, each simultaneously transforming and transformed by the other, Alpha more than passes muster. Though there will undoubtedly be people who argue that this isn’t appropriate for young kids, given the numerous depictions of animal slaughter (even though these acts are largely implied rather than shown in the film), but maybe it’s time we stopped coddling children in this way, shielding them from the realities of how meat gets on their plates. Alpha’s portrayal of the intimacy of the contact man once made with his food—the violence of which we’ve gotten increasingly better at disguising in clean packaging and products that bear little resemblance to the animal they came from—might not be comfortable, but perhaps it’s something children are better off confronting early on.
Australian actor Smit-McPhee, whom you might remember as the little tyke from 2009’s The Road, or as Nightcrawler in the more recent X-Men: Apocalypse, does well enough here, and while not outstanding in any respect, manages to invest his character with a likeable, believable vulnerability and grace. And while I can’t be sure how much of that performance by his co-star—played by a Czechoslovakian wolfdog called Chuck—can be put down to actual “acting” versus special effects, the end result is still pretty darned impressive.
Speaking of impressive, Hughes, cinematographer Martin Gschlacht and their team have pulled no punches when it comes to imagery, designed to be seen on as large a screen as possible, and in 3D if you can. It’s a strange mix of real-life landscapes and fairly-obvious CGI, culminating in a unique, trippy aesthetic overall. Alpha was shot largely on location in British Columbia and Alberta, and partly in Iceland, and is at its most visually striking when the camera sweeps over these vast, gloriously untouched landscapes, underscoring the isolation of our protagonists, who are often reduced to tiny, moving flecks against these stunning backdrops.
unfortunately, before we get to the good stuff, we have to sit through what feels like hours and hours of set-up, chock full of the most irritatingly dated, pseudo-profound mumbo-jumbo, from Jóhannesson’s character in particular. This is a man who seems incapable of talking in anything other than annoying, misguided platitudes about proving one’s worth through aggression, with constant references to the “ancestors” who watch over them, to the point where you start to wonder if The Lion King’s Mufasa is about to show up among the damn stars and deliver some pop-wisdom from beyond the grave. It’s therefore a relief when Tau and his posse take leave, and boy and wolf move centre stage. When it’s just those two, Alpha soars.
Director: Alfred Hughes
Actors: Kodi Smit-McPhee
Genre: Survival adventure