It’s sweet, really, to imagine the kind of devotion “Alpha” might inspire, a film that’s very simple, kind of strange, but will melt any dog-lover’s heart. It’s the story of a young boy living in Europe’s last Ice Age, his fight for survival and the special relationship with a wolf that keeps him alive.
When it comes to sheer spectacle, “Alpha” is a stunning production, especially in 3D IMAX. Director Albert Hughes and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht re-create the untouched vistas of pre-civilization Europe shooting on location in Canada, while enhancing with visual effects. The camera soars and swoops across the prairies, fields and glaciers, creating the sense of flying for the audience. When the landscape becomes impacted with snow, it is epic, but less visually stimulating.
Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Keda, the son of a tribal chief Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), embarking on his first big hunt. Tau is filled with pride to have his son learning how they provide for their tribe, teaching him lessons along the way about self-sacrifice and leadership. The dialogue here, what little of it there is, is frankly a bunch of baloney — the kind of vague aphorisms about killing things as a sign of strength and worthiness that’s essentially toxic masculinity and bootstrap individualism dressed up as naturalistic wisdom.
Fortunately, the sensitive and shy Keda is cut from a different hide, and he’s the film’s true hero. During the hunt, everything goes haywire, and Keda is thrown off a cliff by an angry bison. The tribe must leave him behind, unable to lose their chief Tau to a risky rescue mission. He’s racked with grief, but he must do what’s best for the tribe and leaves his presumed-dead son behind, marking his place of death with stones.
Here sets off Keda’s remarkable survival mission, which he does his own way. All he takes from his father is his map home, a tattoo on his hand of the Big Dipper constellation. He’s no great hunter, but he’s a sweet and gentle soul: a healer, not a killer. When a pack of wolves goes after him, he injures the alpha wolf, then nurses it back to health. Soon Alpha is by his side, through blizzards and predator attacks, as Keda makes the arduous journey home.
“Alpha” is an epic adventure tale that tells the story of how humans and dogs came to have the relationship they do, one of devoted companionship and mutual support. It’s hard to survive out there without a loving, warm-blooded creature by your side, whether it’s the Ice Age or the 21st century. Thematically, “Alpha” nails the idea that our survival is dependent on the love and support of others, and the idea emerges from the haze of faux fur and war paint in which “Alpha” is coated.
Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson and Natassia Malthe. Directed by Albert Hughes.
Rated PG-13 for some intense peril. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 36 minutes.
Bottom line: An adventure tale dog lovers will love