Dogs are no strangers to the big screen. Man’s best friend has been eulogised over and over and the audience is forever ready to lap it all up. And now, adding to the pantheon made famous by the likes of Lassie, My Dog Skip and Marley & Me, is Alpha, a fictional story that points to the origins of the friendship that changed the course of humanity.
But fiction or not, Alpha (director Albert Hughes’ first solo venture) is the kind of film that’ll stay with you long after you’ve left the theatre, not just for its heartwarming story, but sweeping, rich visuals of pre-civilisation Earth, the likes of which you haven’t seen before.
The survival-adventure story is set in pre-historic Europe (20,000 years ago, Upper Paleolithic age) and a tribe of hunter-gatherers have just initiated two of their younger members into the group that’s heading out for the Great Hunt, the spoils of which are meant to last the tribe through the harsh winter that’s quickly approaching. It’s a long and treacherous journey, one that their ancestors have made multiple times, and few return.
One of the new entrants is Keda (a remarkably poignant Kodi Smit-McPhee), son of the tribe-leader Tau (Johannes Haukur Johannesson), who hopes to groom him to follow in his footsteps. But Keda is a gentle soul, and when it’s his turn to slice the throat of a warthog, he recoils in agony.
“He leads with his heart, not his spear,” says his mother (Natassia Malthe) in an earlier scene.
Tau is, however, adamant about turning his son into a warrior, and they forge ahead to their final destination, a bison grazing land. A moment of hesitation leads to Keda’s separation from his group and the young hunter is presumed dead as the group heads back home. On one of the days, when an injured Keda is painstakingly trying to make his way back home, he’s surrounded by wolves, and in an adrenaline-filled moment manages to injure one and scare the others off. But like the warthog, Keda is not up to finishing the job, and so begins their fledgling friendship, where the unlikely duo must depend on each other to survive the savagery of the Tundra winter and trace a path back home.
While the story is fairly straightforward, what keeps you glued to the screen are the unmatched visuals and the cracking chemistry between Smit-McPhee and Alpha (played by Chuck, a Czechoslovakian wolfdog). Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht takes every chance he can to cut away from the action and give you startling scenes of untouched nature (sparkling auroras, star-strewn inky black skies, isolating snowy expanses, unforgiving cliffs and parched plateaus). One particular scene that sees Keda trapped under a sheet of ice while Alpha pursues him from the top is cinematic gold.
At a time when we’re increasingly turning towards streaming sites for quality content, there’s something to be said for the simple joys of enjoying wholesome content on an evening out at the cinema, and this is where Alpha delivers. A genuinely simple story — that could have gone to the dogs in less capable hands — told without fanfare and shiny trimmings, Alpha succeeds in its quieter moments: an accidental game of fetch, a knowing glance, a shared bath or the long, agonising moments that make the difference between survival and death.
You’re definitely going to come away from the movie wanting to immediately adopt a pupper. You’ve been warned.
Don’t miss it!
Alpha releases in the UAE on September 6.