★★★ / ★★★★
Fans of adventure movies from decades ago are certain to recognize something special in “Alpha,” a boy-meets-wolf story set twenty thousand years ago when men must hunt for food in order for their tribes to survive the long winter. While absolutely enjoyable, particularly its moments of peril, it falls just short of greatness due to its short running time of a hundred minutes. There are two main ideas here: a teenager on the cusp of adulthood who must prove himself worthy of becoming the future leader of his village and the friendship between the young man and the wolf he befriends after both of them are injured. There simply isn’t enough time for these two ideas to reach a synergy, not when the ambition is also to create a product that is easily digestible by mainstream viewers.
Its impressive visuals attempt to overwhelm the senses. Notice that even the first ten seconds of the picture already attempts to paint an idea in the minds of those watching—that the world we are about to embark on is alive, daunting, and unforgiving. This work reminded me of adventure movies like the near peerless “Never Cry Wolf” and the thoroughly engaging “White Fang.” While those projects are less reliant on CGI and more interested in philosophical musings, all three works capture the drama of being out in the wilderness in which every creature, plant, or random occurrence can prove dangerous or downright fatal. We are inspired with awe as majestic images grace like screen like the finest, rarest silk.
Keda is the name of the young man we follow and he is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, no stranger to independent projects, particularly in the realm of comedy-dramas. While not one of his previous work impressed me in terms of he being a perfect fit for the role (he came close in “Slow West”), here is the film in which his bizarre and intriguing look marries an equally captivating material. I believed him to be a person who lives in prehistoric times even when the material is not accurate when it comes to how dogs have become domesticated over time. I hope he takes on more roles like this in the future.
The picture might have been improved had the screenplay by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt chosen philosophical avenues to explore because Smit-McPhee is capable of simply looking at a distance and communicating paragraphs. One of its strengths is the quiet moments after Keda is left to survive on his own because his clan had assumed him to be dead after a long fall. At times these moments of quiet and pause manage to underline why humans evolved as social creatures. In addition, a more elegant screenplay might have helped to bridge the gap between the subplots involving leadership and friendship.
It is of great relief that director Albert Hughes has chosen not to have English as the spoken language in order to commercialize the material further. Hearing a strange but interesting and beautiful language adds so much to the story’s mythos. Put this film on mute and it would still retain a significant chunk of its power because the images are so pure, sound only elevates an already gripping material. It remembers that adventure stories are universal.