“Witness the origin of the relationship that changed our world forever in Alpha – the story of Keda; a young man on his first hunt who becomes injured and separated from his tribe. Lost and alone, Keda forms an unlikely alliance with a wolf that has been abandoned by its pack and together, facing overwhelming odds and danger at every turn, they must traverse the harsh and unforgiving landscape in a desperate attempt to make it home before winter.”
Alpha marks the first solo directorial effort of Albert Hughes; who, along with his brother Allen, form the directing duo The Hughes Brothers. Together, they have worked on films like Menace II Society and The Book of Eli, but they have temporarily parted ways to allow them the freedom to work on solo projects and, in his first feature without his brother, Albert Hughes has delivered something rather special with Alpha – a film that tells a simple and familiar story in a unique and unfamiliar way.
Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Keda – the soft, kind-hearted son of the tribal chief. “He leads with his heart, not his spear” says Keda’s mother, acknowledging the fact that her son is not like his fellow tribesman and it is this mantra that echoes throughout the film, as we see Keda relying on ingenuity as opposed to good, old-fashioned brawn. Keda empathises with all life and this is evident when he rescues an injured wolf. Where his fellow tribesman would have slaughtered the wolf and used its meat to fuel their bodies for the fight ahead of them, Keda is far more concerned with making sure the wolf lives – like his mother said, “he leads with his heart, not his spear.” Keda names the wolf Alpha and thus begins a bond that will see them take on the elements together. Smit-McPhee is fantastic in a demanding, multifaceted performance that requires a broad spectrum of emotion, from love and compassion, to anger and desperation and he manages to hold both the screen and our attention with an unwavering confidence. The rest of the cast all do a great job, but for the most part, Alpha is very much a one-man show and Kodi-Smit McPhee is more than up to the task.
Now, it would be easy to assume that a story about the adventures of a boy and his dog would be aimed at children, but nothing could be further from the truth. Alpha is a very serious and surprisingly dark story of survival with characters who speak in a crude, unknown foreign language that was specifically invented for the film and serves to heighten the authenticity of its prehistoric setting. Hughes is meticulous in his attempts to make Alpha feel as raw and real as possible; everything from the costumes and props to the sets and accessories are finely detailed and help to ground the story in its time period and pull audiences in to its reality, never questioning what we’re seeing on screen. The only English spoken in the entire movie is in the form of an opening and closing narration from the king of narration himself, Morgan Freeman, and in all honesty – it’s the most jarring part of the film and doesn’t feel like it belongs. Oftentimes, less is more when it comes to filmmaking and the final shot of the movie is both aesthetically stunning and emotionally resonant, suggesting that the bond Keda has made will change mankind forever, so we honestly didn’t need a narration to reinforce the images we’re seeing, because they are powerful enough on their own.
Speaking of stunning visuals, Alpha is absolutely littered with them. Albert Hughes has teamed with his cinematographer Martin Gschlacht to craft and deliver some of the most earth-shatteringly beautiful images you’re likely to see on a big screen this year. Everything from close-ups of Keda’s dirty, weather-ravaged face to shots of the surrounding wilderness or the night-sky aglow with the light of infinite stars is captured with such clarity that you find yourself hypnotised by anything that’s onscreen. I would honestly go as far as saying that Alpha features a handful of instantly-iconic shots that will be applauded for their beauty for years to come. One such shot occurs when Keda plunges through the ice and into the freezing water below – something we’ve seen a hundred times before in a hundred different movies – but never quite like this. Alpha frantically tracks Keda’s silhouette as it drifts away beneath the ice and, in an act of sheer desperation, Alpha leaps in to the air and at this moment, everything slows down. The screen is divided perfectly; the top half is a crisp, white blizzard with Alpha plunging towards the ice and the bottom half is a deep, cold ocean with Keda trying to hammer his way back to the surface. The framing of this shot is exquisite, with Keda and Alpha’s will to survive perfectly mirrored through the layer of ice that separates them. This shot is just one of many throughout Alpha that will really make you sit up and take notice of what’s on screen.
Alpha is surprising in a lot of ways. What could have been a schmaltzy, overly sentimental film aimed at children is actually a mature and patient story packed with heart, accompanied by startling moments of brutality and some of the most breath-taking visuals of the year. Honestly, you could pause Alpha at any moment and the frame on screen would be worthy of printing, framing and hanging on your wall at home like a beautiful piece of art. It may not have big, A-list stars or a complex story, but Alpha is a simple and wonderfully old-fashioned adventure told with a modern finesse and a film that every dog lover in the world should see, because it serves as a love letter to that age-old, unbreakable bond between a man and his dog and you’ll arrive home even more in love with your canine companion than you already were.