Alpha (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): When a prehistoric boy tamed a wolf

“Alpha” presents its story and background with considerable conviction, and I liked that even while noticing its rather weak aspects. While this is a familiar type of survival adventure drama, it is a fairly engaging stuff mainly thanks to its vivid presentation of a fictional prehistoric world, and I was impressed enough by several nice visual moments in the film while caring to some degree about its simple but effective story, which is about an unexpected relationship between its two different main characters.

The background of the movie is some northern region of Europe, 20,000 years ago. During the opening sequence, we are introduced to an adolescent boy named Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a bunch of his tribal hunting members including his father who is the chief of the tribe, and then the movie shows us how Keda came to join the group a week ago. After passing a stringent test along with one of his friends, he goes through a little brutal ritual, and we soon see him departing along with his father and other members of the hunting group.

As reflected by his brief private conversation with his wife, Keda’s father is not so sure about whether his son is brave and strong enough to be a hunter. He emphasizes to his son that he must be ready to do anything in the name of survival, but Keda finds himself hesitating a lot when he is instructed to kill a wild boar he and others have just hunted, and his father accordingly comes to worry more about his son.

After their long, patient search around their hunting area, Keda and other members of his hunting group eventually come upon a herd of bison, and we soon see them slowly approaching to the herd and then successfully driving the herd to the edge of a big cliff, but then something bad happens to Keda. Due to one of the fleeing bison, he gets himself thrown over the cliff, and then he is fallen down to a ledge in the middle of cliff. As helplessly watching over his son’s inanimate body on the ledge for hours, Keda’s father comes to believe that his son is dead, and he sees that he has no choice but to mourn for his son’s death along with others before returning back to his tribe.

Of course, not long after his father leaves with others, Keda regains his consciousness, and he soon realizes how grim and desperate his situation is. Although he manages to get away from the ledge thanks to a fortunate change of weather, he is badly injured, and he is left alone in the wilderness without anyone to help or guide him. While he manages to take care of his injury for himself, he does not know well how to return to his tribe before it gets too cold, and he is surely well aware of many possible dangers lurking here and there in the wilderness.

Anyway, there is still a chance for his survival, so Keda becomes determined to do anything necessary for that. At one point, we see him drinking from a rather questionable source of water, and then we watch him ingesting an earthworm because, well, he needs to eat. Quite convincing in his character’s grueling physical struggle for survival, Kodi Smit-McPhee, who has steadily grown and advanced since his memorable performances in “The Road” (2009) and “Let Me In” (2010), carries this part of the film well alone, and his engaging screen presence keeps holding our attention as we come to care more about what will happen next to his desperate character.

Later in the story, Keda finds himself chased by a pack of wolves, and he manages to survive while incidentally injuring one of these wolves, which is left behind by its fellow wolves in the end. At first, Keda considers killing this injured wolf for ending its misery, but he comes to change his mind, and then he takes care of its injury after muzzling it first. After gaining some trust from this wolf, he eventually takes it to a cave where he and his hunting group previously stayed, and he later gives it water and a certain type of food which may make some of you cringe for a good reason.

While it is not so surprising to see the growing bond between Keda and this wolf, the screenplay by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt, which is based on the story by director Albert Hughes, depicts this relationship development between its two main characters via plain but intimate moments such as when they calmly and peacefully watch the night sky together at one point. While it is apparent that the wolf in the film is partially based on CGI, it looks like a real animal as far as I could see, and Smit-McPhee is believable in his interactions with the wolf in the film on the screen.

In addition, the movie provides us other good elements to be appreciated. Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht often gives us crisp, breathtaking landscape shots, and there are also a few well-made action scenes including the one unfolded right below the frozen surface of a lake. While the finale does not exceed our expectation much, it has a small surprise at least, and I could not help but amused by that.

Overall, “Alpha” is solid and entertaining enough for me although I often noticed its artificial sides including numerous CGI shots and the fictional prehistoric language used by Keda and other human characters in the film. To be frank with you, I still prefer cats to dogs, but the wolf in the movie came to me as an endearing character nonetheless, so I guess the movie did its job as well as intended.

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