Alpha is an old-school adventure yarn – old in this case meaning 20,000 years ago.
It's set among a small tribe in northern Europe (actually filmed in Canada), whose hunters set out to kill bison, a violent event that ends with the leader's son Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) presumed dead.
He isn't, though, and when he regains consciousness, his long and perilous journey in the direction of home becomes an ordeal of survival – a sort of PG-13 version of The Revenant, but less grisly, naturalistic, and less interested in revenge.
Instead, the driving dramatic force here is the friendship that develops between the young man and the wounded and abandoned wolf he encounters on the trail, and nurses back to health. This is all told visually, with little dialogue (brief scenes featuring human conversation in a primitive tongue are subtitled).
The images cement a bond between the two "leads" – individuals separated from their families, alone, injured, recovering. But there are differences too. Keda has been shown to be hesitant to kill, a trait he will have to overcome if he is to survive. The road home is patrolled by fearsome predators, including saber-toothed tigers, and even "prey," such as wild boar, are as likely to kill as to be killed.
That Keda has survived to adolescence in a hunter-gatherer culture without killing (or learning how to kindle a fire) is not terribly credible, but it does serve the story, built around the idea of the human and the animal influencing each other. As Keda cares for the animal, feeding it and dressing its wounds, he domesticates it. As they set out into the wilderness, the animal brings out the "wolf" in Keda. They hunt together, living off the food they provide for each other.
The movie will play in IMAX theaters and 3-D, which is the best way of seeing it. Director Albert Hughes (yep, the same guy who along with brother Allen did Menace II Society and Dead Presidents) and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (the recent creep-out Goodnight Mommy) capture and construct some compelling images.
The movie is a blend of live-action and green-screen work, with special effects added in postproduction – mammoths, tigers, hyenas. The creatures are not especially convincing, but nor are they the focus of this drama, and they are used not as objects of spectacle but as storytelling devices. Most effective are broad shots of the barren and tundralike landscape, used to place the characters in breathtaking isolation.
Smit-McPhee is a serviceable lead, and the "wolf" represents a neat feat of animal wrangling. They anchor an involving, old-fashioned outdoor adventure story, the sort Disney used to crank out just about every week back in the 1960s and 1970s, augmented here by newfangled and up-to-date special effects.
There are times when the animation doesn't feel completely integrated with the live-action photography (perhaps why the movie's release was delayed), but mostly it works well, and it's worth sticking around for Hughes' final image, of hunters advancing toward the camera, the rising sun at their backs.