Alpha: Absorbing origins story for man's best friend

Review: Kodi Smit-McPhee is magnetic in an all-ages action flick about a boy and his wolf

Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) with Alpha

Film Title: Alpha

Director: Albert Hughes

Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chuck, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhanness, Jens Hultén, Leonor Varela

Genre: Adventure

Running Time: 96 min

Fri, Aug 24, 2018, 05:00

   

It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that Hollywood doesn’t make movies like boy-meets-wolf swashbuckler Alpha any more. A tremendous all-ages action picture with a dash of Jack London brand adventuring and a smidgen of William Goldman’s The Inheritors, it’s impossible to think of any previous film that comes close in terms of story or style. The project’s sui generis nature means it’s unlikely to spawn a sequel or sequence, but is also the film you most want to see a follow-up to.

The appeal is a no-brainer for anyone with a companion animal or anyone who enjoys survivalist conundrums. Albert Hughes, who previously directed Menace II Society and From Hell with his brother Allen, has conjured an absorbing origins story for the domestication of the dog.

Alpha, set in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic period – have no fear: the Morgan Freeman voiceover bookending the film will fill you in – Alpha concerns Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a novice warrior on his first hunt for Steppe Bison. As the only son of the tough but tender-hearted chief (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhanness), the pressure is on. His mother (Leonor Varela), however, fears that the boy is led by his heart.

She may be right. A thrilling opening sequence sees Keda injured and left for dead. Alone and in constant danger – Hughes’s film does an excellent job of introducing the many, many things that could kill you or eat you 20,000 years ago – the wounded hunter-gatherer finds an unlikely ally in an equally injured wolf, which he names Alpha.

Together, boy and proto-dog undertake a perilous journey towards home, defined by many electrifying set-pieces.  

Beautifully shot in Iceland and rural Canada, Alpha makes marvellous use of hyper-real CG and landscape. The entire cast, including canine star Chuck, do expansive, expressive things with minimal dialogue. Inevitably, Kodi Smit-McPhee has to do most of the heavy lifting, and he does so with such magnetism, he puts the aurora borealis sequence to shame.