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Entries in Alpha (1)

Sunday
Sep232018

ALPHA

Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Marcin Kowalczyk, Jens Hultén, Natassia Malthe, Spencer Bogaert, Mercedes de la Zerda and Leonor Varela.
Writers: Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt (screenplay) and Albert Hughes (story).
Director: Albert Hughes

RATING: ★
★
★
★

In this modern movie-going age, where origin stories clutter up our multiplexes with tiresome monotony, it seems fitting that a film that ponders on the starting point of the age-old ‘a boy and his dog’ narrative should take place around the dawn of prehistory. Deceptively simple in its construction yet sweepingly epic, exciting and genuinely moving in its execution, Albert Hughes’ Alpha spins a potentially academic ‘domestication of the dog’ story into a coming-of-age fable that adventure hounds and dog lovers will drool over.

Set 20,000 years ago against a European landscape of shifting geography and harsh climate, Sebastian Wiedenhaupt’s screenplay introduces us to protagonist Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) at a pivotal moment in the young man’s passage towards alpha-manhood. He is being led into a buffalo hunt by his father, tribal elder Tau (appropriately sturdy Icelandic actor Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), yet fails to be the man his tribe and his dad needs him to be.

Flashbacks reveal Keda is the sensitive type, unable to slay an animal for food and not the natural woodsman or warrior that is expected of someone with his heritage. Smit-McPhee’s casting proves a deft masterstroke despite at first appearing misjudged. Very much not the hulking caveman type, the Australian actor’s lean physique, doleful eyes and initial timidity does not disappear over the course of his personal growth, but rather takes on an androgynous muscularity that is central and crucial to the film’s subtext.

Separated and left for dead, Keda is adrift and alone on the prehistoric tundra, his injuries making him seemingly easy pickings for scavengers. Prime amongst them is a wolf pack, which fails in their bid to drag Keda from a tree and nearly lose one of their own in the attack. The entire second-act of Alpha is largely the young tribesman regaining his strength while tending to the wolf’s wounds; the co-dependency they develop takes a few real-world liberties (surely a starving wolf would turn on his protein-rich human companion at some point?), but dramatically the friendship is a potent and believable match-up.

As Keda and his newly bonded wolf companion (part real animal, part mostly convincing CGI) set out for his tribal home, they must overcome physically challenging and breathtakingly photographed obstacles, including an unforgettable encounter on and underneath an ice-lake, an omnipresent hyena pack, the first snow of the season and, in one terrifying sequence, the lair of a true alpha predator. Director Albert Hughes, making his solo directorial debut after doing double-duty for two decades with his brother Allen on such films as Menace II Society (1993), Dead Presidents (1995), From Hell (2001) and The Book of Eli (2001) enlivens a rather perfunctory ‘journey home’ plot with thrilling, vast and complex staging of the pair’s trek. He also forges a believably emotional bond between man and beast that is driven home in both personal and sociological terms in the film’s final frames.

Narratively, Alpha is a lean, small-scale friendship drama, of outcasts from their clans bonding across an interspecies divide. Cinematically and thematically, however, Hughes’ film is a grand, bold vision of the development of humankind, one that transcends its millennia-old setting and makes an entirely and passionately contemporary statement.