Director: Albert Hughes
Screenwriter: Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt, from a story by Albert Hughes
Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson
Runtime: 96 mins.
Australian release date: 27 September 2018
Previewed at: Hoyts Cinemas, Moore Park, Sydney, on 22 September 2018.
Perfectly timed for release during the school holidays, Albert Hughes’s Alpha is a unique adventure that all the family can enjoy. In Europe 20,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, we watch as a Cro-Magnon tribe of hunter-gatherers prepares for an annual expedition in pursuit of their winter food supply during the short summer. The chief, Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), is guiding his son Keda (Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee) in the art of survival, telling him that he must be strong because he is now mature enough to join in the hunt. As a test, Tau instructs his son to kill a boar but Keda, an animal lover, can’t bring himself to do it. It’s an ominous start.
Regardless, the men head off, with Tau showing the young men the various marks that reveal the trail to the hunting grounds. Once there, they successfully steer a herd of bison off a cliff but one of the breakaways charges Keda, flinging him off the precipice too. He falls down to an inaccessible ledge, unmoving, and is left for dead. When the 17-year-old comes to, he is faced with trying to find a way back to his village before the freezing winter weather arrives. On the way, he badly injures the alpha wolf of a pack when the creatures attack him. Wounded himself, Keda decides to help the suffering animal, who he fittingly names Alpha, taking time to gain his trust and, eventually, the pair forms a bond and sets off across the hostile, magnificent terrain, attempting the almost impossible task of finding Keda’s village in the ever-advancing snow.
Smit-McPhee is well cast as the young man faced with this Herculean task of survival in the inhospitable elements and his relationship with Alpha, played by Chuck, a Czech wolf dog (a cross between a German Shepherd and a Carpathian wolf), is highly believable. It has been touted as a possible representation of the origins of our affiliation with ‘man’s best friend’ and there may be some truth to that premise, or something quite like it, judging by the depiction here. The stunning scenery (Alpha was shot in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia) and Smit-McPhee’s and the international cast’s authenticity make this rousing story an adventure worth experiencing.
The film is certainly a departure for writer/director Albert Hughes, one half of The Hughes Brothers, who were responsible for movies like Menace II Society, Dead Presidents and The Book Of Eli, among others. Fascinatingly, an entire functioning language was created for the (sub-titled) film, which the creator called Cro-Magnon 101, and consisted of a vocabulary of about 1500 words (Morgan Freeman’s ‘voice of God’ narration is the only English spoken). This was just one of the lengths the crew were prepared to go to in order to create a true-to-life experience; all the technical credits are exemplary, too. Alpha tells a universal tale of discovery, survival and friendship, marked by richness of emotion and stunning visual effects. It’s an unusual treat.