It’s been a while since we had an old-fashioned caveman movie (for lack of a better term), and kudos to director Albert Hughes for conceiving of one with Alpha, the story of a prehistoric teen who makes his way back to his family across a vast, treacherous landscape with the help of a wolf he establishes a bond with. But the movie is both impressive and vexing as Hughes’ genuinely ambitious vision is hampered by stock plot points and inconsistent visuals.
Hughes isn’t afraid to genre-jump, going from urban drama (Menace II Society) to period horror (From Hell) to post-apocalyptic sci-fi (Book of Eli) with relative ease. In Alpha, he confidently asks viewers to follow Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young member of an advanced Cro-Magnon tribe known as the Solutrean (that’s also the original title of the movie itself, which was shot more than two years ago). Keda speaks a primitive language and traverses lands both forbidding and beautiful with only the wolf–christened Alpha by the boy and played by the undeniably adorable Chuck–at his side.
Set in southern Europe 20,000 years ago during the throes of the last Ice Age, Alpha opens with a striking setpiece: the tribesmen run full speed at a herd of buffalo, who in turn stampede right toward the men. But the hunters hurtle their spears in unison, creating a blockade that makes the animals veer left–and right off a cliff to their deaths, later to be collected for meat. Keda is out on his first hunt with his father (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhanneson), who also happens to be the tribe’s chief. When the boy is snagged on the horn of one of the animals and flung off the cliff himself, his doom seems all but sealed.
Then the movie flashes back a week (a typical move these days with filmmakers and an unnecessary one: why not just start the movie there?). We spend much of its first half hour getting to know Keda, his father and mother (the latter, played by Natassia Malthe, doesn’t think Keda is ready to go on the hunt) and the ways of their tribe, who must hunt the “great beast” to avoid starvation during the endless winter. Their quest eventually leads to the sequence the film opened with, which leaves poor Keda stuck and apparently dead on a ledge halfway down the cliffside and accessible only to hungry vultures.
It’s no spoiler to say that Keda escapes becoming birdfeed and winds up back on the ground, with a broken foot and abandoned for dead by his father and the tribe. Attacked by a pack of hungry wolves, he wounds one of them badly but cannot bring himself to kill it; earlier in the film, we were shown that Keda is not quite the ruthless hunter he needs to be if he wants to fill his belly. And so he gradually nurses himself and the wolf back to health, or at least the ability to stand and walk, and the two form a relationship and team that becomes the heart of the story.
At this point, Alpha becomes a straightforward tale of endurance and friendship while settling into a vaguely irritating pattern of inconsistencies. It veers from hard-edged survival drama to something that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Disney family adventure, while the visuals range from moments of stark beauty to cringeworthy snatches of sketchy CG. The surface of a lake, a windswept mountain range, and the animals themselves, such as a ghostly pack of hyenas or a menacing black tiger to Alpha, share flashes of visual splendor with shots in which they look like escapees from a video game.
The extensive use of digital trickery is, to be fair, probably what’s needed to bring southern France and Spain in the Ice Age to life. But it does take one out of the movie, making the intended emotional payoffs (and there are a few) not as handkerchief-friendly as Hughes probably imagined. There are some other noticeable gaffes: Both Keda and his pop have nicely manicured fingernails, while everyone’s clean white teeth hint that the tribe’s medicine woman is damn good at dental hygiene as well.
Still, Smit-McPhee and Chuck (when not replaced by pixels) are quite good, and Keda’s evolution into shrewd, toughened survivor is believable enough. Their friendship also certainly becomes empathic and even, in its better moments, transcendent. There’s a final shot in which the film hints at the bigger meaning lurking around its edges, and it’s an admittedly powerful one. All this makes Alpha a passable 96 minutes of entertainment that will one day make a decent double bill with Quest for Fire.
Alpha is available on Blu-ray and DVD on November 13th, 2018.