Film Review: Alpha

The stone-age tale of how man found his first furry friend.
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The boy-and-his-dog movie is as old as the silents, but Alpha renders it new by making it even older. This is a caveboy-and-his-wolf story.

Told mostly in grunts and growls, the highly visual family film is set 20,000 years ago, in the harsh wilderness of Northern Europe. There, a tribe is preparing for their annual hunt—and it’s hard to tell who is woolier, the men or the mammoths.

But this isn’t just a Stone Age trip to the serve-yourself supermarket—it’s also a sacred rite of passage for the youngest men. Particularly the chief’s son, Keda, who seems a little too sensitive for this whole kill-the-beast, eat-the-beast, be-the-beast thing.

Things go wrong almost immediately, as a disaster leaves him cut off from his tribe—lost and forced to make his own way home through a rapidly approaching winter. But in the end he finds himself—by finding his real talent in taming, and loving, the other, real lone wolf who soon falls in beside him.

There’s something inherently campy about cavemen films, with their invented dialogue and actors in tailored bearskins, and Alpha is no exception. Although my knowledge of the Ice Age mostly comes from, well, Ice Age, some details feel more pure Hollywood than prehistoric. (There seem to be an awful lot of familiar African animals wandering around and all the characters have had more access to dentistry than you would have expected.)

The movie, however—which was shot more than two years ago—is a visual feast, one of the rare 3D films which was clearly designed with that extra dimension in mind. Director Albert Hughes—mostly missing-in-action since making the slightly mad The Book of Eli with his brother Allen in 2010—takes advantage of the spatial generosity. He breaks things up into planes of action, exploding the frame with softly floating embers, buzzing fireflies and clouds of red dust. He fills the wide screen with images of nature, turning it into a sort of trippy lightshow—ice grows into lacy crystals, grassy plains wave like seas, stars stretch out into infinity.

The story, unfortunately, isn’t quite as developed—even at barely over an hour-and-a-half it occasionally feels padded, with needless cuts back to Kedah’s parents (played by Johannes Haukur Johannessen and Natassia Malthe). But things perk up when Hughes wisely returns to close-ups of his two gorgeous stars—Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Keda, and Alpha, his lupine counterpart. Both are beautiful, particularly after a mid-film swim, and their scenes together—first learning to trust each other, then learning to hunt together—are charming. (Although some scenes may be too intense for younger children, or the easily nauseated—dung and maggots play pivotal roles.)

Alpha has some other things to overcome, not all of them of its own making. It’s in a disrespected genre. It’s been on the shelf for a while. It has no real stars. But it is ravishing. And if you don’t tear up just a little bit at the end—even despite your better instincts, even in spite of your own jaded self—clearly there’s only one explanation.

You’re just a cat person.