Alpha to um, mega

Movie review: Alpha

Albert Hughes’s magical, 3D vision of post-Ice Age Europe forms the backdrop for a fictionalized account of how one generation of early humans domesticated the wolf.

Alpha

3/5

Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Natassia Malthe, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson

Directed by: Albert Hughes

Running time: 1 hr 36 mins

Rating: PG-13

By Katherine Monk

Digging up Cro-Magnon man’s bones to unearth the roots of the “boy and his dog” story, director and story writer Albert Hughes pulls off a few new tricks with Alpha.

He fictionalizes the inciting event that gave man his proverbial best friend, and in doing so, has to reimagine the post-Ice Age landscape in Europe, as well as come up with a proto-language for his Solutrean protagonist.

To save you the wiki-twip, the Solutreans were a creative tribe of Cro-Magnon hunters who lived on the southern part of what is now Spain and France around 20,000 years ago. They fashioned spearheads and knives, killed big prey, and there’s a fossil record to prove it.

Hughes fictionalizes the inciting event that gave man his proverbial best friend, and in doing so, has to reimagine the post-Ice Age landscape in Europe, as well as come up with a proto-language for his Solutrean protagonist.

There’s also enough evidence to suggest they were part of the first, and recent DNA studies say only, generation of hominids to domesticate the wolf. So, how did it all happen? How did the two competing predators become friends?

Hughes imagines the boy Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) heading off on his first hunting expedition with his father Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) and the rest of the manly clan. They need to get enough meat to bring home for the winter. The journey is hundreds of miles long, across ice and snow, mountains and rivers. Yet, they manage to find their prize: a herd of prehistoric bison grazing near a cliff. With a little clever prodding, they’re knee deep in beef. Yet, something goes horribly wrong and Keda is left for dead.

Waking up alone, hungry and physically disabled, Keda begins his desperate mission to survive. Things are going okay, which means he’s still breathing, when he’s attacked by wolves. He severely injures the alpha, and the pack leaves, but now both of them are hurt and without a family.

You get the picture: Two lonely souls in a cave, without a friend in the world and a thing to eat. They have to work together to survive, but when you’re starting from scratch, claw and bite, there’s a lot of trust-building that has to happen first.

You get the picture: Two lonely souls in a cave, without a friend in the world and a thing to eat. They have to work together to survive, but when you’re starting from scratch, claw and bite, there’s a lot of trust-building that has to happen first.

Not just between the animal and the human, but between Hughes and the audience. If he’s going to make us believe in this whole fact-meets-fantasy version of prehistory, he has to make it come alive for us in a way that doesn’t feel overly cheesy, a Disney dinosaur version of lush rainforests or a Dreamworks’ gush of glowing ice floes.

So instead of creating everything in the computer lab, he goes on location to Canada. Vancouver and the Badlands of Alberta mostly. They used the hoodoos of Drumheller and the coastal inlets of British Columbia, the rainforests and the plains, the ice fields and the empty ((landscapes. What they didn’t find, they augmented and enhanced, and entirely reimagined.

Yet, as startling as the results are, the surreal edge is always something tangible. This is a world we used to know, but no longer see. It’s a place where the night sky is filled with a hundred fold more stars, the Milky Way streaks across the heavens and clouds of fireflies glitter through the forest. It’s all so beautiful, and in some places, still within reach.

Yet, part of what gives Alpha its pathos is the implicit understanding that there is a loss of innocence along the way. As much as we gain from the bond of man and animal, we recognize a certain transformation of nature — a significant shift in the balance that puts the status quo at risk.

The domestication of wolves — which, again, happened only once about 20,000 to 40,000 years ago according to a recent article in Nature — did have an effect on human evolution. Some argue it helped Homo Sapiens knock off Neanderthal once and for all, others point to co-dependent hunting as a trigger to more complex civilizations, but we’ve definitely made the leap to modernity with a four-legged sidekick panting at our side.

Dog wolf Alpha Chuck Kodi Smit McPhee

Alpha Running Mate: Chuck and Kodi Smit-McPhee prove two is better than one.

Every once in a while, you can still see the gleam of the wild twinkle in dog eyes. And you wonder: “Would you eat me?” Not to worry. Given what they watch us consume, your dog is probably wondering the same thing.

In the end, it’s all about the food, and who gets to eat first. Alpha understands this premise, and it rules its unique domain — a prehistoric odyssey about a man and his not-yet-dog.

It stands alone in the genre’s fictional timeline, but it’s still a product of the Hollywood movie tradition, borrowing bits of everything from The Revenant to Rin Tin Tin. Hughes knows the movie depends on animal chemistry.

The animal, in this case a Czech wolf dog named Chuck, turned out to be the perfect co-star for Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee. The two look genuinely terrified of each other at the beginning, but as in all true romances, it ends with someone being carried in the other’s arms.

Hughes finds an old-fashioned feel without sacrificing special effects at every turn, and for that, Alpha deserves your respect. For recreating the boy and his dog story with an artful eye for prehistory and a commitment to fossilized facts, Alpha also earns a well-deserved cookie.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, August 17, 2018

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Review: Alpha

User Rating

3.8 (4 Votes)

Summary

3.5Score

Albert Hughes’s magical, 3D vision of post-Ice Age Europe forms the backdrop for a fictionalized account of how one generation of early humans domesticated the wolf. Hughes finds an old-fashioned feel without sacrificing special effects at every turn, and for that, Alpha deserves your respect. For recreating the boy and his dog story with an artful eye for prehistory and a commitment to fossilized facts, Alpha also earns a well-deserved cookie. -- Katherine Monk

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