MOVIE REVIEW

‘Alpha’ is an ambitious adventure for all ages

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It’s not a very good title, but it’s a beautifully made film, and is one of those rare pieces of commercial cinema that works equally well for all ages.

Set 20,000 years ago in the then-mostly unsettled wilds of Europe, it opens on a group of men, crawling on the ground, spears in hand, approaching a herd of bison. It’s this tribe’s annual hunt before the rugged winter closes in.

Things go terribly wrong, especially for young Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is the son of the chief and is on his first hunt, hoping — as is his dad — to prove that he’s capable of being a leader someday.

But before the situation is resolved, everything flashes back one week, to just before the hunters set out. Using only spare, simple dialogue, all of it subtitled (I have no idea what language they were speaking, or if it was just made up), the script tells of ancient tribal rituals and has the chief (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) attempting to teach Keda how to start a fire, how to kill game, how, upon meeting a new person, you should raise your head and stare straight into his eyes.

Even though, at this early point in the film, director Albert Hughes (half of the Hughes brothers team) and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht have made it clear that this is going to be a stunningly good-looking movie as far as capturing the scope of the landscape as well as action sequences, they take it a step further with a generous use of nighttime close-ups of faces in firelight. There’s also — and you don’t get this admission out of me very often — excellent use of 3D, in that it’s used for depth rather than gimmickry.

The film’s title eventually comes up. It concerns the leader of a wolf pack, which dad talks about to Keda, explaining that “you’re not born an Alpha; you earn it, with courage and your heart.”

Which goes back to why the title doesn’t quite work. The story could be about that wolf, or about Keda one day becoming the Alpha of the tribe or about — when the story turns to the relationship between Keda and a wild wolf — which of them will be the Alpha. No, it’s simply the name Keda assigns to that wolf.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story returns to the opening hunt, and chronicles what went wrong, involving an angry bison, an accident Keda suffers, and the hunters — including despondent dad — leaving him for dead on an unreachable cliff ledge. The story, much of it moving along via long stretches of no dialogue, has Keda, all bashed up, getting out of his jam, but finding himself alone in the wilderness, with only basic survival skills (he knows to drink water and eat worms) and a small knife, which he uses to fend off an attack by a pack of wolves. He wounds one, can’t bring himself to kill it, and inexplicably decides to nurse it back to health.

A quick note about that “wolf”: It’s actually played by a Czechoslovakian Wolfdog. A quick check on thehappypuppysite.com revealed that these animals were created in Czechoslovakia as part of a military program in the 1950s, are a cross between German Shepherd dogs and wolves, and that “it took three years just to find a male German Shepherd who was up to the task of mating with a wolf.”

The film turns into a story of survival, featuring a human and a wolf. Both are injured, neither trusts the other, both have been abandoned by their tribes. They become an unlikely team, and evolve into a pair of mismatched buddies, both trying to get back home.

“I will call you Alpha,” says Keda. So, there’s your title. The story momentarily veers off track when Alpha’s pack briefly returns. But then the film gets into the fierceness of nature, troubles with illness, and celebrations of heroism, all paired with constant reminders of the vastness of the landscape and how small the two protagonists are within it.

The uplifting ending is a tad ridiculous, but the film will delight kids, and they might even learn a few important life lessons.

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