Directed by Albert Hughes
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Chuck the wolf-dog
Rated PG-13 for some intense peril
1 hr. 36 mins.
Alpha is what you might expect from a film about a young man’s adventure with a wolf. Its story is very straightforward without too many surprises, save for a bit of a twist in the end.
A lot of time and money have been spent on things in this film other than just the story, and it’s those extras that set Alpha apart. Whether those extras are enough to draw you in, well, let me explain and then you decide.
The setting is 20,000 years ago in upper prehistoric Europe. A small tribe must decide which young person will join a hunt for buffalo. The test: making a decent arrowhead tip for a spear. Some fail. Some pass, including the chief’s son, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Chief Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) and his wife, Rho (Natassia Malthe), discuss the dangers of the trip. She is worried, but he reassures her, and the hunting party sets out.
During the trip, Tau tries to teach his son about survival and leadership. One of those lessons is how to find his way home based on a map burned into Keda’s hand. The map matches a constellation in the sky.
As Tau tests his son, the jury is out as to whether or not he’s up to the task, especially when he refuses to kill a boar that will serve as food for the hunting party.
Finally, during the hunt, Keda freezes in fear when he’s charged by a buffalo. Hooked on a horn, they both fall over a sheer cliff. By luck, Keda lands several hundred feet down on a ledge. Appearing from a distance to be dead and too far down to retrieve, the hunting party and his father reluctantly leave him.
Keda, however, is not dead. He does manage to get off the cliff and discovers that he’s been left behind. Now he must find his way back using the map on his hand. When he’s attacked by a pack of wolves, he injures one with a knife before escaping up a tree. The friendship begins as they heal together and learn to help each other.
Yes, I know. It sounds Disneyish. It is.
The whole movie is subtitled using an actual proto language created by Dr. Christine Schreyer from the University of British Columbia. Schreyer also created the language Eltarian in last year’s Power Rangers.
Second, filmed in IMAX 3-D, one of the unspoken characters in this film is the photography. Shot primarily in British Columbia and Alberta, Alpha exhibits wide expanses and dramatic ice-age scenery. It’s a deliberate contrast to the small band of hunters, and to Keda and the wolf.
Finally, the director is Albert Hughes, one of the Hughes brothers who produced and directed Menace II Society and The Book of Eli. From urban ghettoes to the prehistoric wilderness, Hughes has successfully transferred his talents to Alpha. The film’s direction and photography are tight. There’s little wasted time as the story moves along.
Alpha is not elaborate. It’s built on drama, nature and the friendship that results between Keda and the wolf. That friendship is a process and Hughes carefully pieces the story together. By the time the bond is established, you’re hooked.
Who will this film appeal to? I imagine, if you can work with subtitles, it might be enjoyed by any child who loves animals, especially dog lovers and fans of dog films. While it may seem predictable, its drama is still worthwhile, and once it gets rolling, the adventure is nonstop.
So, does the uniqueness of this film outweigh its predictability? You’ll have to judge for yourself. And if you actually get a chance to see it in IMAX, then consider yourself fortunate. Get off the couch, grab a kid or a dog lover, and take the journey.