Who doesn’t love a story about man’s best friend? Well, I guess a lot of you if the response to Dog Days is any indication. Well, here’s a much better one. Alpha, the tough yet heartwarming survival tale of a prehistoric hunter’s unexpected bond with a feral wolf, is one of the summer’s most pleasant surprises and will have you giving Spot a few extra treats after dinner.
Billed as “the incredible story of how mankind discovered man’s best friend”, Alpha has all of the heart-tugging moments we expect from a story about a boy and his favorite pet. But there’s also a tremendous amount of grit and dirt under its nails, and I can only guess that has to be the influence of writer/director Albert Hughes, who brought such gritty realism with Menace II Society so many years ago. Set 20,000 years ago somewhere in the rugged European steppes, a pack of tribal hunter-gatherers strike a daring attack on a herd of Steppe bison. Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the young son of the chief Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), kind of heart, but good at crafting lethal weapons. He’s not ready for his first hunt, though, and is gored over a cliff’s edge. Believing his son dead and now walking with the spirits, the chief leaves to finish the hunt and nourish his people.
But the sensitive Keda is not dead; he clings to life as tightly as he clings to the cliffside. He tumbles back down to earth, busting up his leg and making an already-treacherous journey home more dangerous. The weather won’t help. The terrain is rugged and unforgiving, but it’s the snows that will finish him if he doesn’t make it back quickly. That is if the wolves and hyenas don’t eat him first. It’s a pack of wolves that nearly does it, but Keda is quick with his knife and cuts one. While the others flee, Keda tends to the injured animal, feeds it, cares for it. They both have a journey to make, and slowly they begin to rely on one another to see it through.
Alpha is a straight-line adventure, a prehistoric road trip movie if you will, and as such it’s really a story about evolution and growth. A metaphor for the struggle any boy takes to becoming a man, Alpha finds Keda and his newfound friend enduring a series of hardships. But the biggest fight is internal, as Keda must overcome self-doubt that he can be the leader his father needs him to be. Much like the alpha of any wolfpack, leader is a title that isn’t given, but is “won through courage”. It’s just one of many lessons Tau teaches Keda that bear fruit later on, while the wolf, which he eventually names Alpha, teaches him a thing or two about loyalty.
Hughes dreamed up the story himself, and he smartly decides to keep it simple with the focus on Keda and Alpha’s friendship. Through harsh, frigid blizzards and sabretooth tiger attacks, a number of fun sequences build our investment in the duo. We see Keda accidentally invent the game of fetch while trying to drive Alpha away; we see them splashing around in the river, catching fish, and of course there is a lot of hunting. Smit-McPhee doesn’t get a lot to say and what he does is in some ancient language subtitled for our reading pleasure. But he’s physically expressive, so that we understand his pain at being disconnected from his family. We also see the joy at the connection he forms with Alpha.
It’s kill or be killed, and Alpha doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities Keda faces on his quest home. Some of the time-lapsed views of the terrain resemble computer screensavers but Hughes does a good job with the CGI predators always nipping at Keda’s heels. At only 90 minutes in length, Alpha sinks its teeth into the story quickly and lets go at just the right time. Along with Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs this is a pretty good year for movies that celebrate man’s love of canines, and their devotion to us.