Director: Albert Hughes
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Chuck the Wolfdog
Running time: 96 minutes
Europe, 20,000 years ago. When young Keda (Smit-McPhee) is left for dead by his tribe while on a hunt, he strikes up an unlikely alliance with a wounded wolf – who he names Alpha – in a bid to return home to his family.
The tale – or tail, rather – of a boy and his furry friend facing the harsh, impending realities of adulthood together is one we know very well. From Lassie to Old Yeller to My Dog Skip, the boy meets barking buddy blueprint is almost as old as cinema itself – a tried and tested method almost guaranteed to wet the eye and warm the heart. Such weighty and extensive pedigree, therefore, makes for the very difficult prospect of taking those recognised conventions and adapting them into something fresh. Thankfully, director Albert Hughes and screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt have done just that, and with Alpha, deliver the coming-of-Neanderthal film we never knew we needed.
Acting as something of an origin story for the concept of ‘man’s best friend’, Alpha combines animal-companionship film beats with timeless coming-of-age tropes and sets it against a previously alien genre backdrop: that of the harsh, unforgiving plains and mountains of prehistoric Europe. After some rather needless Morgan Freeman narration, an exhilarating opening lands us firmly in a world of vast landscapes, spears, and charging beasts. Here, a young boy on the brink of adulthood – son of the tribe’s leader – is initiated as a hunter and joins the perilous ‘Great Hunt’ in search of buffalo with his father and fellow tribesmen.
In a modern setting, this is the moment the teenager embarks on his first day at work, or leaves the family home for University; but here, Hughes and Wiedenhaupt neatly mould such familiar rite of passage moments onto the act of slaying wild boars, drinking sacrificial blood, and accepting sabre-tooth inflicted death as a part of life.
Such a patient and intricate build-up – we’re a good 40 minutes in before we get even a sniff of the titular wolf – gives us ample time to ingest the film’s broad themes and allows Hughes and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht to fully explore a world fraught with both danger and breath-taking natural beauty. Weaving a brilliantly intimate, spiritual – and, at times, brutal – tale of companionship and compassion, Hughes and Gschlacht pepper their narrative with a flurry of beautifully creative establishing shots that seamlessly merge from what feel like sweeping pastel paintings to snippets from an episode of Planet Earth.
And despite hitting those familiar narrative notes once Keda and Alpha are left to wander the wilderness together – playing fetch, going fishing – this is the quintessential story of survival, where life on the brink of death brings about a landscape enriched with teachings and learnings – and some neat role reversal – as the bond between man and canine strengthens. This is easily the most visually stunning and deeply existential boy-meets-beast odyssey this side of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.
With a hefty helping paw from four-legged friend Chuck, Kodi Smit-McPhee commendably carries the emotional weight of the film on his young shoulders; often having to rely solely on facial expression to express feeling in the absence of lengthy, rich dialogue. But to add too many words to this deeply detailed depiction of life in the looming shadow of adulthood would be to spoil the unspoken wonders of Alpha – a film whose very title, by the end, is illuminated in ambiguity, and a narrative that keeps enough surprises up its sleeve to make for a satisfying and touching conclusion.
A shaggy dog story this definitely ain’t. Instead, somewhat ironically, this chilly coming-of-ice-age tale might just be this summer’s hidden gem.