Alpha: I’m Lost and I’m Found, by David Bax

Albert Hughes’ Alpha is a little weird when you think about it. And, when you really think about it, it’s a lot weird. Like, it’s weird that it even exists. Not that that’s a complaint; it’s a good movie, for the most part, with some prominent weaknesses. But here we have a boy-and-his-dog story that ought to be appealing to kids, except it’s often intense and gruesome, with bizarre prehistoric inventions like a Cro-Magnon buffalo hunt staged like a Braveheart battle and a tribe that apparently practices the “blood in, blood out” ritual of jumping in new members. It also seems possibly to take place in some sci-fi/fantasy alternate version of the past, like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah; or, more likely, Hughes and his collaborators are just very optimistic about the tailoring skills of European early modern humans.

On his first ever hunt, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the son of the tribe’s leader (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), is run off a cliff by a buffalo and left for dead. Shortly after coming to with a broken ankle, he’s set upon by wolves. He fights back, grievously injuring one of them and finding safe haven up a tree. In the morning, the wolves are gone save the one Keda has hurt. Taking pity on the animal, whom he names Alpha, he carries it to a cave where they heal together and, with a cautious but growing trust, set out toward Keda’s village. Oh, and every word spoken is in a Cro-Magnon language created specifically for the film with English subtitles, another odd choice for an ostensible kid-friendly movie.

Europe 20,000 years ago (actually Alberta, about two years ago) is an untouched place, which makes it kind of beautifully ironic that Hughes’ presentation is so full of whiz-bang, state of the art flourishes. The camera (or the CG apparatus) zooms and swooshes over meticulously color-timed, digitally enhanced vistas. It’s entrancing in the way of a high-res screensaver, set to the kind of chintzy, quasi-dramatic music you hear in commercials for videogames. Still, Hughes’ technocratic attention to detail impresses, especially when it comes to the use of 3D. Instead of becoming gradually unnoticeable like in so many blockbusters, the technique here is consistently employed with thoughtfulness, potently elucidating height, scale, distance and depth, highlighting the jeopardy in which Keda and Alpha repeatedly find themselves.

Frustratingly, those episodes—even as they pile up—fail to cohere into a journey we can believe and invest in. It’s not entirely clear why it seems to take the pair months to return to the village when it’s made explicit that it only took a week to get from there to where Keda was injured. Also, since we’re never allowed to forget that what we’re seeing is an origin story for the domestication of canines, Keda and Alpha’s safe return is never really in question.

These are relatively minor complaints, though, when you consider that Alpha’s real story is the bond between the young man and the wolf, not their trek. Here, once again, Hughes bizarrely but commendably subverts expectations. Unlike in standard kid/dog movie pairings, this is not a tale of two equals who become best friends. The movie is far more interested in the process of domestication itself. For every cute scene in which Keda and Alpha accidentally invent a primitive form of classic dog games like tug of war or fetch, there’s another one that blatantly underlines the wolf’s subservience. When Alpha learns, for instance, not to eat animals immediately upon killing them but to instead bring the carcass to Keda to cook and then wait patiently to be fed by hand, it’s not meant to be an illustration of love for the human; it’s a triumph of conditioning by Keda.

Even so, the bond between them is palpable. For that, Hughes has his two lead actors to thank, Smit-McPhee and Chuck as Alpha. The former uses his physicality—perpetually stuck between puberty and manhood, with an Adam’s apple so pronounced it suggests malnourishment—to the same effect as he did in John Maclean’s Slow West. We’re never entirely convinced of his capabilities and so we’re always pleasantly surprised when he comes out on top. The latter actor similarly employs a duality, representing either danger or protection, depending on which ways his fangs are facing. Thanks to the two of them, Alpha is ultimately more successful than not in achieving its aims, weird as they are.

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