Alpha: Film explores man and dog bond forged thousands of years ago

This extreme wide establishing shot of Alpha and Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is one of the most famous images from the film.


This extreme wide establishing shot of Alpha and Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is one of the most famous images from the film.

Craig Watkins, Opinion Editor

There have been many movies made about the relationships people share with their dogs, spanning diverse genres from the heartwarming memoir Marley & Me to the disturbing post-apocalyptic A Boy and His Dog.

Alpha takes on the monumental task of telling the story of the first wolf to be domesticated. While the speculative story from prehistory could be told in an infinite number of ways, Albert Hughes made it into a realistic survival adventure that is easy to become attached to.

Set in Europe during the last ice age, Alpha follows the journey of Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the compassionate son of his tribe’s chief, who must find his way home before winter after being left for dead on his first hunt.

After injuring a wolf that attacks him, Keda takes pity on the animal and decides to nurse it back to health, learning along the way that he can survive alongside the deadly wild, not just against it.

The setting is Alpha’s greatest achievement. Humans are played by actors with distinct facial features, and their early tools and fictional language (used throughout the entire film with subtitles) place them perfectly in the time period.

The world virtually untouched by man feels hostile at every turn, yet it is stunning to look at. There are plenty of establishing shots of the wilderness along Keda’s long trip home that showcase the beauty of nature in balance and any one of them would make a wonderful still photograph.

This skill with the camera is also put to use in framing images of men interacting with the wild, many of which are silhouetted with figures flat against the horizon, evoking the style of cave paintings.

The only time the visuals lose their magic are when they include some jarring stock footage or CGI effects of animals that cannot quite reach the level of realism set by recent big budget films like 2016’s The Jungle Book. Thankfully the animal with the most screen time, Keda’s wolf companion who he names Alpha, is played by a real wolf dog.

Despite being the movie’s namesake, the wolf does not really carry the heart of the story. Alpha suffers from having less of a distinguishable personality from other famous film dogs, but then it is still a feral animal with hundreds of generations to go before becoming like the pets we have today.

On the other hand, Alpha benefits from having a much broader character arc than the average movie mutt by going from hunter, to patient, to companion, to tribe member.

The scenes that focus on Keda and Alpha’s growing relationship range in how engaging they are. Allusions to everyday activities dog owners experience like playing fetch and struggling to give their dog a bath are cute, but make up some of the duller moments in the film. Scenes where the two learn to conquer the wilds in ways like hunting together are more captivating.

Yet many of Alpha’s more emotional beats come not from the prehistoric pooch, but from the human tribe.

There is a surprising amount of dialogue for a film about a lone hunter who speaks a made-up language, but all of the actors deliver their lines as if they were speaking straight from their minds.

The most memorable exchanges include Keda’s parents (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson and Natassia Malthe), whose two personalities become the two sides of Keda’s own that he must balance to survive the odyssey back to them.

While Keda and Alpha are subjected to much peril and violence is naturally a part of the world the film is set in, wounds on humans and animals alike are not too graphic and many of the animals that die in the movie do so off screen.

Alpha’s PG-13 rating is accurate, but it should be suitable for some younger wolf-lovers who do not frighten too easily.

Alpha is a touching and exciting film that infrequently suffers in some areas where it is not as evolved as other animal-centric movies. Maybe not always the leader of the pack, Alpha is still a very good dog and gets an 8.5/10.