Young Keda tries to survive alone in the wilderness after he's left for dead during his first hunt with his Cro-Magnon tribe. He soon forms an unlikely alliance with a lone wolf that was abandoned by its pack. Facing overwhelming odds and nonstop danger, Keda and the wolf must now trek through a harsh and unforgiving landscape to make it home before winter.
1 hour 37 minutes
August 17, 2018
Director: Albert Hughes
Writer: Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt & Albert Hughes
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee & Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson
Genre: Historical, Adventure
I’m sure I’ve said somewhere that I appreciate when movies that focus on the desperation of mere survival bring me into thinking on matters that we modern folk take for granted. What I don’t appreciate is when the actual film before me doesn’t actually warrant such introspection beyond its trappings. The Hughes Brothers are a bit of a mixed bag with their film outings. Since Albert Hughes moved to the Czech Republic in 2004, the duo has only directed one film together, the spectacularly broken 2010 post-apocalyptic thriller The Book of Eli. The sense of visceral style that has been a staple of the duo’s films since the early 90s is present in Albert’s latest film Alpha. Does the substance therein match it? Let’s take a look.
Violence/Scary Images: It’s a survival story, so the main character and his wolf ally face significant, intense peril, including cliff falls, animal attacks, exposure to the elements, hunger and thirst, lingering injuries, and illness. Animals are killed out of necessity. In one scene, teens are briefly beaten by adults as part of a rite of passage, but it’s not done viciously and not shown closely (it’s out of focus in the frame).
Language/Crude Humor: None.
Sexual Content: None.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None.
Spiritual Content: Something akin to ancestral mysticism is present.
Other Negative Themes: Some frank moments of survivalist grit.
Positive Content: Courage and belief in yourself are core messages. Perseverance, cooperation, resourcefulness, and love of family are all present as well. One key to both the main character and the story is empathy. Animals are hunted out of necessity, not for pleasure. The main character has many positive qualities, including courage, perseverance, empathy. His parents are loving, teach him well.
At times when I’m left alone to ponder certain things, I really marvel at how much we modern folk take for granted in our livelihoods. How often do we fail to recognize that our state of easily accessible food, clothing, shelter, and luxury is one that has been completely alien to most of the stretch of human history? Even as recently as 1895, the average person living in Western civilization was living on roughly $1 USD a day. And that’s in current inflation rates.
For most of human history, the norm has been a lifestyle rife with constant danger and desperation, where basic necessities were acquired through militant means of tracking, hunting, and killing. It certainly kept one free from ennui for any stretch of time, as any sign of complacency and fragility was soon snuffed out either by the society or by the natural surroundings. Many of us today couldn’t make it through a day without our smart devices. Imagine how we’d fare in an environment without grocery stores.
This was my state of mind when Alpha, the latest film directed by one half of the Hughes Brothers, opened itself with a small Cro-Magnon hunting party tracking down a herd of bison. The movie certainly came dressed to impress, and on a visceral level, it delivers where it counts. The production made every attempt to recreate the world of precivilization by shooting on site in wide stretches of Canada and Iceland, and the wide panoramic vista shots of the untamed wilds are guaranteed to please.
Of course, having the impression of a deeply introspective exploration into mankind’s relationship with nature only gets you part of the way. The drama has to be just as sophisticated as the aesthetics suggest it to be in order to justify the appearance. Alpha at its heart wants to be a soulful bond between man and beast, but the developmental choices are too unspecified to land any of the emotional resonances successfully.
In effect, Alpha reads like a dramatized nature documentary of early European man, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. Taking place 20,000 years ago, we are introduced to a conventional survival drama setup, initially focusing on a young and waifish sapling of a hunter-gatherer named Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his strained but affecting relationship with his chief father Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). Keda isn’t a very ideal Cro-Magnon, with very little in the way of fierce grit or warrior’s heart. Even his doting mother Rho (Natassia Malthe) notes that he “leads with his heart, not his spear”. Tau is perfectly aware of this but is also aware that life is grim and must be met grimly.
All of this is delivered with the actors performing very convincingly with a fictional Cro-Magnon language, so subtitles are in abundance. What’s sadly not in abundance is any sense of immediate empathy with the characters or their struggles. There is some high-minded and nigh-on mystical talk of ancestral traditions, leadership, and the wisdom of the past found in constellations and cairns that grants an aura of soulful weight to the drama, but that’s also done from a notably etic perspective that isn’t worked into the fabric of the drama at any point.
The story proper doesn’t really get going until after the climactic encounter with the bison that leaves young Keda for dead on the side of a cliff. From there, what follows is very much a grindingly generic survival drama featuring desperate scrounging for sustenance, harsh life-threatening changes in the weather, crippling injuries with cringe-inducing self-remedy methods, and vivid dreams about home in moments of reflection. It all looks quite impressive, and if other reviewers are any authority on the matter, I might have missed out by not paying extra for an IMAX 3-D showing.
With that established, what’s supposed to be the selling point is Keda coming in violent contact with a pack of dire wolves, injuring one in self-defense, and nursing the would-be predator back to health. This serves as a useful catalyst to what amounts to something of a primordial dramatization of a major turning point in human development.
When I was young, I loved reading the fables of Rudyard Kipling, especially the ones offering fantastical explanations for the physical oddities we observe in many animals (“How the Rhino Got its Skin”, “How the Camel Got Its Hump”, etc.). Under certain slants, Alpha can be considered a more authentic attempt at a Kipling-esque tale (“How the Canine Became Domesticated”). With that in mind, I can largely forgive the rather superficial development in the relationship between Keda and the wolf he affectionately grants an eponymous name. Only largely, though.
In all honesty, I was expecting something more akin to Ang Lee’s Life of Pi in how Keda and Alpha (played by a Czech wolf-dog named Chuck) learn the mutual respect necessary for survival. Granted, there is a major divide in the settings and contexts in which those two stories play, but something more personally explorative and substantiating in Keda’s trek across the unforgiving frozen wilds would have been welcome. Sure, I could do without the religiously pluralistic gobbledygook of Ang Lee’s film, but treating these characters as actual characters instead of superficial molds of characters meandering to the tune of an ambitious cameraman would have been a welcome choice. A scene in which Keda falls under a sheet of ice with Alpha pawing at the surface to facilitate a rescue is one of the more intense and suspenseful moments and is worth the price of admission alone if that’s worth anything.
The story of a boy and his dog is a very easy and effective tale full of empathy and easy emotional points of entry, but that doesn’t serve as a justification for abdicating legitimate dramatization. Familiarity with this sort of narrative can enable the audience to fill in the gaps in the development. It is somewhat odd to find the wild wolf Alpha becoming so cloying and obedient to Keda after only a moment or two of interaction. Seeing more prickly conflict between the two as their understandings of each other are made manifest would have both served to strengthen the payoff of their interdependence and given much-needed weight to Keda’s coming to meet the demands of his manhood.
With the focus on a frail son of a war chief nursing and earning the camaraderie of a wild beast that he personally injured and bringing about a new era of cooperation between his people and the beasts after a particularly perilous adventure, you could be forgiven for thinking that the subtitle “How to Train Your Wolf” would have been fitting. However, save for one noteworthy last-act twist, there’s little here that’s surprising or daring enough in the drama to justify that comparison. uch like The Book of Eli, the film here ends in a way that a sequel is certainly viable, but in no way made to seem likely to occur. Seems the Hughes Brothers have a penchant for doing their employers’ marketing work for them. I wonder how long until they start including arbitrary after-credits scenes.
+ Incredible cinematography
+ Believable atmosphere
- Rushed and rather unbelievable development