This movie tells a fictional story about what could have likely happened 20,000 years ago, when the neanderthals first learned to domesticate dogs and use them as hunters. So in this story Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the son of a chief and is lost during an attack on a group of bison, so he must find his way home, alone and afraid. It’s at this point that he befriends a wounded wolf and they manage to help each other survive. It’s a relatively silent movie, the only dialogue spoken in (what’s credited as) a North American Indian dialect. The only other significant actor in the film is Keda’s father, played by Icelandic actor Johannes Haukur Johannesson.
This movie is a real surprise. From the trailers, I was expecting something that was straight-to-DVD quality. What we get is something full of heart and suspense.
Kodi Smit-McPhee really carries this movie by himself and it’s very impressive. Since he doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, we’re learning about him from the way he views and interacts with the world. It’s convincing and quite an accomplishment.
His interactions with the wolf mostly work but I think why audiences might love it so much is that we have all of this history with dogs and most people have owned dogs, so we’re projecting our experiences onto this wolf. “He makes the same sound that my puppy makes!” or “My dog does that too!” are common thoughts here. It takes our experiences with every dog we’ve ever owned and gives those examples here. It works for the most part.
The other star of this world is the world that they’ve created. The cinematography is stunning, full of huge and interesting landmarks in this ancient landscape. The colors are vibrant and the world is beautiful. We’re not given exposition for any of this but we don’t really need it. We watch the seasons change and we watch as they cross dangerous obstacles, it’s all just a natural part of that world.
While the landscapes and settings look great, unfortunately the wildlife isn’t quite as spectacular. You can tell instantly when the wolf is a CGI creation rather than the real thing. And you can tell when it’s a green screen or when the wolf and boy are not really in the scene at the same time. For a movie relying on this working, it doesn’t always work.
Also, I blame the trailers for this movie for ruining the ending for me. There’s a few scenes that I was expecting the whole time and one of them was literally the last scene in the movie, so that was a huge bummer and marketing misfire.
Alpha is a really pleasant surprise. It’s not going to win any awards but it’s a great adventure and does a lot of things right. It’s kid-friendly, though maybe a little scary. If you want something interesting and have a soft-spot for dogs, this might be right up your alley!