By Liam Lacey
Filmmakers often complain, justifiably, that critics and audiences keep asking for something different, and that when they get it, they reject it. The movie Alpha is definitely something different, an unexpected shot of originality for summer fare.
The film is a survival story set 20,000 years ago, about a young hunter, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who gets wounded and separated from his tribe. In the process of surviving, he bonds with a wolf, the start of a long-and-beautiful human-canine friendship.
While nominally marketed as a “boy and his dog” story for family audiences, the film is not your typical cute Ice Age-style confection. The target viewers could be science-adventure nerds, both old and young. There are precedents for this kind of prehistoric adventure, including Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children novels, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire (1981) and possibly Jack London’s century-old Before Adam. But in the current movie market, Alpha is out there on its own.
The dialogue is in an invented language, with subtitles – possibly an impediment to North American audiences, though, like animated films, easier to sell internationally. The film is produced by a new company, Studio 8, financed by Sony Pictures with a majority ownership by a Chinese investment firm. Alpha gets its Chinese release in September.
Alpha was conceived of by African-American director Albert Hughes, who, with his twin-brother Allen, is known for intense, visceral action movies, including Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, From Hell and The Book of Eli.
Not only is Alpha Albert’s first film alone in a new, more meditative style. I kind of love that the original working title was The Salutrean, named for the era of stone carving people in southwest Europe around twenty millennia ago, when the continent was still largely covered in ice. (Unfortunately, the word has recently become politicized with white nationalists embracing the longshot “Salutrean hypothesis,” that Europeans first settled North America).
The script, by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt, follows a conventional initiation journey, with echoes of The Lion King: Kedi is a sensitive youth, whose mother (Natassia Malthe) doesn’t want him to go on the big hunt yet because, “he leads with his heart, not his spear.”
But father, Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), the chief, insists that “Life is for the strong,” so Keda needs to man up. On the annual big buffalo hunt, Keda gets trampled and thrown off a cliff by a pissed-off buffalo. He lands on an inaccessible ledge and his father and other hunters, look sad, make a funeral pile of stones and abandon him.
In fact, he only has a broken ankle, and after shimmying down to safety, begins to make his way home as winter closes in. While escaping an attack by a wolf pack, he wounds one of the animals and then helps it to heal. The young man and the wolf bond, begin to help each other hunt and cuddle at night for warmth.
Alpha aims to be not just a story but a transporting visual experience, which is one area where it over-reaches. The film was shot in British Columbia, Alberta, and, that favourite backdrop for mind-boggling geological formations, Iceland.
There are dramatic cliffs, star-streaked skies, aerial shots of ice fields. There is also a lot of CGI which the charging buffalo herd and ravaging wolves jerk about a fraction too mechanically to seem menacing. The 3D cinematography is great for inducing depth vertigo, but it works against a sense of spaciousness and freedom. At moments, Alpha brings to mind the great animal films of Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion, Fly Away Home and, of course, Never Cry Wolf) but not to Alpha’s advantage: It’s the gap between awesome and almost, between the sublime and the merely ambitious.
Alpha. Directed by Albert Hughes. Written by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt. Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Natassia Malthe and Chuck the wolf-dog. Alpha is playing at Cineplex Yonge and Dundas, Silvercity Yonge-Eglinton and Silvercity Yorkdale.