ALPHA—-Mankind & canines: “best friend” had to start somewhere. In this speculative 2019 survival adventure, ‘somewhere’ is northern Europe, 20,000 years ago in the Late Stone Age (Upper Paleolithic, for you quibblers). The first dog whisperer is a teenage hunter-gatherer, the primordial pet is a wolf.
The leader of a small tribe takes his young son along on a dangerous, crucial hunt, the first such outing and test for the boy, who doesn’t display much of the vitally important aptitudes for the tasks at hand. Injured and separated from the group during a bison raid, he’s given up for dead. ‘Keda’ (Kodi Smit-McFee) survives, barely, but must now try and make his way back to the distant home encampment. Chased by a wolf pack, he wounds one, who, like the boy, is left behind when the pack gives up trying for a quick lunch. Trial and error, Keda attempts to strike a bond with the animal, who he calls ‘Alpha’. Over time, the wolf, whose original intent was to chow down on the kid, responds. They grow to depend on each other, and share the perils of a long and brutal walk to sanctuary.
Visually a treat, with CGI augmenting the extensive location work, the essential warmth and dramatic simplicity of the story differentiates it from the other cinematic guesses at life as lived by our ancestors ancestors. Alfred Hughes directs, keeping the trek to a trim 96 minutes, with a script by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt that uses ‘Beama’ for Keda and kin, a conlang (constructed language), created by anthropology professor Christine Schreyer.
Grown up from playing a boy on another desperate trek in The Road, McFee ably conveys the tribulations and triumphs of the young man: it’s refreshing that the script gives Keda and his kin a range of emotions rather than just the usual and expected blunt behaviors we associate with those long-gone wanderers. Alpha is played by “Chuck”, a Czechoslovakian Wolfdog, a recently developed breed—mid 1950s—hybrid of German Shepherd mixed with Carpathian Wolf. Chuck’s a pretty apt pupil in the Lassie-meets-Old Yeller mold (or litter), and the other special effect-created critters are decently realized. Dog lovers will warm to the growing relationship, and can be forgiven for choking up a little at the finale.
Shot in Canada (British Columbia and Alberta) and Iceland, yielding a goodly number of beautiful images redolent of a harsh but magnificent landscape unmarred by civilization. The majesty of clear, star-swarmed celestial skies and shimmering Northern lights summon that deep yearning we hold for the natural and eternal. It’s a neat movie: you just have to suspend snap-snark judgement on some logic holes big enough to shove a mastodon through.
Made for $51,000,000, the can’t-miss theme of a boy and his dog yielded a worldwide gross of $99,625,000, with another $6,579,000 from disc purchases. It’s easy to say that kids will love it, but there’s enough to lure the inner child out of any adult not freeze-dried into their own ice age of cynicism.
With Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson (the father), Natassia Malthe (the mother), Marcin Kowalczyk, Jens Hultén and Leonor Varela.