Review: ALPHA

Poignant and exciting, “Alpha” is a unique, 3D, Ice Age set adventure yarn, in which the wild and the wilder tame each other.

The process of becoming an adult 20 thousand years ago starts for Keda with the expert crafting of a spear head. Huddled around a camp fire, a line of young men whittle away, producing pointed weapons made of stone. Tau, the clan’s chief, and Keda’s father, carefully inspects the spear heads, confirming which of the craftsman are worthy of venturing out on a dangerous hunting party.

When Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is selected by his father, the rite-of-passage continues with a ceremonial beat-down by the older, experienced hunters. Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) knows that this initiation is necessary, but since Keda is his son, he takes no pleasure in the pain inflicted on the boy. In time, the hunting party leaves camp in search of buffalo. The inexperienced Keda is about to have a life-changing adventure, and it will be a fight for his life.

Told almost exclusively through Keda’s eyes, “Alpha” is an impressively mounted production, taking place entirely on open vistas and rough terrain. It transports the viewer back to the prehistoric time when civilization was in a state of development. It’s a rare big budget production that takes an uncompromising visual and narrative approach—subtitling the dialogue, spoken in some ancient tongue.

We’ve seen this kind of film before. Examples include the Cro-Magnon/Neanderthal 1986 film “The Clan of the Cave Bear” and Jean-Jacques Annaud directed “Quest For Fire” in 1981. The better of those two was “Fire,” which I remember fondly. But as fascinating as these stories are, they struggled to connect with wide audiences.

And today, with spoon-fed narratives that are interconnected to a fantasy superhero mythology, it had to be next to impossible to convince producers of the business sense in investing in a story that is based on the time before history—the world before the world. “Alpha” goes far to alter our perceptions of how such a narrative can be pursued. It’s an action film as much as one about an under-explored time, place, and people. When this movie is thrilling, it’s really thrilling, and the pathos, centering on a boy and his wolf, should connect with even the most cynical of viewers.

The action smartly leads in “Alpha.” In a harrowing sequence, Keda becomes separated from the hunting party. He must find the long, treacherous way back to his tribe, even as the winter closes in. And apart from the elements, beasts walk the land, and any one of them could end his life in an instant. This is where he encounters a pack of wolves. When he injures one, he decides to save the animal even to his own peril. This decision, which soon becomes a mutual friendship, is the kind of familiar cinematic device which audiences are all too familiar. But here, director Albert Hughes (“The Book of Eli”) takes time to let the boy/dog relationship breathe.

Keda decides to name the recovering wolf Alpha (played very well by Chuck, a breed of wolf-dog). The toothy creature is loathe to embrace his new found companion. But hardened hearts melt, as the two come, at first, out of necessity, to form an uncommon pairing. It’s all very entertaining, as boy and dog begin to communicate, even as the merciless surroundings constantly bear down on them.

“Alpha” is really a wonderful movie. Sure, it does get a bit slow as Keda must brave the elements, namely the bitter cold, in hopes of finding his tribe. It would have certainly made a heck of a short film, but that would have sacrificed the tender moments that bring Alpha and Keda together. And it’s the silence and body-language between the two protagonists that makes “Alpha” so special.

“Alpha” will be widely available in the much maligned 3D format. I’ve not seen a 3D feature in months. The 3D gimmick has, for the most part, dulled in popularity. Many viewers see little reason to pay the premium for the ticket and don the glasses. “Alpha” might be worth buying that ticket. The sweeping vistas are marvelously captured, and the action in three dimensions envelops you. But this is a beautiful film that will work without the glasses, and the story is strong enough too.

“Alpha” is different enough and familiar enough to draw in the popcorn crowd. It takes us to another place and another time, introducing us to people, who even 20 thousand years ago, have the same wants, needs, and loves we today hold dear.

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