Directed by: Albert Hughes
Premise: Set in the Ice Age, a young man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is separated from his tribe and presumed dead. He befriends a wolf that has lost its pack and together they struggle to survive while journeying back to the young man’s village.
What Works: Alpha is a well-crafted and original adventure picture. The movie is fundamentally a boy and his dog story nestled within a survival tale and it delivers on the appeals of both of those genres. Alpha takes place in the ancient past among a tribe of early Homo sapiens as they hunt bison. Keda, the son of an elder, is separated from his tribe and presumed dead. Through a series of circumstances, Keda befriends a wolf and the two of them establish a symbiotic relationship in order to survive. The movie is a sort of speculative fiction about the domestication of dogs and Alpha imagines that in ways that are clever. Animal lovers and especially dog owners will be amused by the way the film stages the origin of familiar activities like the game of fetch and begging at dinner. The bond between Keda and the dog grows credibly. Neither man nor animal trust each other at first but the bond between them grows throughout the story in ways that make the premise believable and draws in the viewer emotionally. Just like a good buddy movie, these two begin cooperating out of necessity and later put themselves at risk to protect one another. The filmmakers tap into the innate feelings many people have for canines but the film doesn’t veer into sentimentality the way so many dog movies do. Alpha is also a satisfying adventure story. Keda and the dog journey across the landscape and encounter various dangers. The filmmakers keep the set pieces within a credible scale and the action is staged in a way that captures the harshness of life in the ancient world. Alpha is also a beautifully crafted film. There are many extraordinary shots in this movie and it uses sound very well. The technical polish does not dull the visceral nature of the survival story but rather enhances it by capturing all the gritty detail of the landscape.
What Doesn’t: Some parts of Alpha’s costuming and production design betray the movie’s rugged and naturalistic style. A few of the costumes look too clean and too perfectly stitched given the primitive circumstances of the story. The actors are also a little too well combed and bred. With their perfect teeth and clear skin, these characters look like a Hollywood idea of early man.
DVD extras: The blu-ray edition of Alpha includes two versions of the film: the theatrical and the director’s cut. The disc also includes deleted scenes and featurettes.
Bottom Line: Due to shifting release dates and a lackluster marketing campaign, Alpha was missed by movie audiences when it opened in theaters in 2018. But this film is well worth seeking out. It is a well-crafted, family friendly adventure picture that deserves much more appreciation than it got.
Episode: #738 (February 24, 2019)