'Alpha': Film Review

Great-looking adventure isn't just for dog lovers.

Albert Hughes' first feature without brother Allen imagines the birth of man's friendship with canines.

Traveling back 20,000 years to imagine how humans might first have bonded with our four-legged friends, Albert Hughes' Alpha finds a stranded youth and a wounded wolf learning to hunt together while the boy tries to find his way back home. The first feature Hughes has directed without brother Allen, it marks a sharp departure from the gritty fare for which the two were known; in fact, it's something of a family film, albeit one exhibiting less sentimentality toward man's best friend than kids may expect. Enjoyably old-fashioned in its narrative but crisply modern in technique, it is engaging enough even for those of us with no soft spot for pets.

Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Keda, the son of a tribal chief (Johannes Haukur Johannesson) about to lead his people on their annual bison hunt. It's actually less a hunt than a tricky maneuver: The men get a herd stampeding, then manage to divert them toward a cliff, where dozens of them spill over to their deaths and can be calmly butchered. Tragically, though, Keda gets caught on one beast's horns, and lands on a tiny ledge when the animal goes over the cliff. Unconscious and too remote to be rescued, he is given up for dead by the grieving hunters.

Awakening after the others have left for home, Keda has a kind of two-wrongs-make-a-right experience: multiple misfortunes cancel each other out, leaving him alive, though wounded, on safe ground. And then the wolves start hunting him.

Flashbacks have shown us that, despite his father's high hopes for him as a leader of men, Keda is unsure of himself and unenthusiastic about killing animals. As his mother says, worrying about his going off on the hunt, "he leads with his heart, not his spear." So while he manages to stab the wolf who leads the attack before he escapes into the upper branches of a dead tree, Keda feels compelled to nurse the animal once the rest have wandered away.

While this is, indeed, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Hughes and his screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt don't milk it for "awww" moments. Keda lashes the wolf's jaws shut so he can tend his wound without losing a hand, then demonstrates his goodwill by giving the animal a bowl of water. After he kills a rabbit, he establishes dominance by swatting the wolf away from the meat: "You have to wait your turn," he insists. Even so, he names his companion Alpha.

The grudging co-dependence between man and mutt is enjoyable in an uningratiating way, and is given an archetypal flavor by gorgeous, storybook-ready compositions. (An enhanced night sky competes with beautifully shot landscapes, where the only trace of humankind is the occasional piled-stone marker showing the way from home to hunting grounds and back.)

One suspects humans' first attempts to domesticate canines went a bit less smoothly than this, but the film makes the bonding feel natural, watching as Alpha (played by a canine actor named Chuck) instinctively dashes into a cluster of boars to chase one toward Keda's waiting spear. The human fumbles that first attempt at hunting, but soon gets the hang of it. Along the way, he accidentally invents Fetch.

Though the audience might be content to watch this relationship develop, an oncoming winter gives Keda an urgent reason to find his way back to fellow humans. At a kid-friendly 96 minutes, the film is not going to unduly drag out the deprivations of his return journey; still, it's a rough trip, peppered with a few bits of action and one visceral reminder of how close our heroes are to starvation. In other hands, this might have been a YA Cast Away, giving Smit-McPhee actorly one-sided dialogues with his non-speaking companion as he battles the wilderness. But Alpha is always generous to its namesake, serious about being a buddy film and respectful of the impact this imagined encounter will have on the history of two species.

Production company: Studio 8
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Johannes Haukur Johannesson, Natassia Malthe
Director: Albert Hughes
Screenwriter: Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt
Producer: Andrew Rona
Executive producers: Stuart M. Besser, Louise Rosner
Director of photography: Martin Gschlacht
Production designer: John Willett
Costume designer: Sharen Davis
Editor: Sandra Granovsky
Composers: Joseph S. DeBeasi, Michael Stearns
Casting director: Sarah Finn

Rated PG-13, 96 minutes