Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) lived twenty-thousand years ago in a tribe of the North, the son of the chieftain Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) who was keen for his son to follow in his footsteps and lead their number. To that end, he has taken the boy out on a hunt, which is necessary as the tribe needs to stock up on food supplies for the winter, but things have not gone to plan, for as they corner a herd of buffalo as they have so many times before, something goes terribly wrong. Keda is singled out by the leader of the herd as its fellow buffalo are forced over a cliff, and try as he might the boy cannot outrun the beast bearing down on him; he is snagged on its horns and calamity -
Well, let's not give the whole game away seemed to be the reasoning behind the edit of Alpha, a prehistoric tale in the tradition of Clan of the Cave Bear or Quest for Fire, which ironically were two of the films to blame for the early mankind genre never really taking hold of the public imagination, since they were flops, merely picking up a cult following. True, Roland Emmerich's 10,000 B.C. was modest hit if not too well remembered, but in the main this sort of thing rarely took off unless there were decidedly unhistorical dinosaurs featured in it: even Nick Park's Early Man, which roped in a football plot, was considered a disappointment compared with his more visible successes.
And sure enough, Alpha failed to gather much momentum, though that might have been partly down to a hesitant marketing campaign which saw the film announced for release over a year before it actually appeared in 2018 to little fanfare and not much in the way of box office interest either. Was this unfair? There were certainly points of interest, chief among them for movie buffs the presence of director Albert Hughes away from his brother for the first time at the helm, and he assuredly brought his usual muscularity to what after all was a very physical narrative, one of survival against the odds which carried along with it a very modern sentimentality and sympathy.
This was down to the central relationship in the film, not between Keda and his father, but between Keda and a non-human. What Alpha tried to do was depict the point in history, lost to time, when people started adopting dogs as pets to help with hunting, protection, and to supply a companionship you would not necessarily receive from a fellow person. Naturally, this was a fanciful envisaging of something you had to assume happened far more organically, but Hughes, who supplied the storyline if not the screenplay, was more interested in delivering an adventure so an adventure was what you had. Poor old Keda is flung over the cliff by the buffalo, but lands on a ledge, apparently dead but actually knocked cold, where his distraught father has to give up on him and return home.
Ah, but once our hero is awake, he is not about to give up, and a message that life finds a way was very present here when we witness his trials and tribulations in getting back to his father over a landscape full of peril, not least the approaching winter. Where did the dog enter into all this? When Keda is chased up a tree by its pack, he manages to stab it in self-defence before getting out of the way, and its cohorts abandon it for dead. Soon, Keda, marked out as a more modern male than his contemporaries by dint of the fact he balked at killing a boar and has generally been acting a lot more emo than everyone else is prepared to put up with, feels compassion for the injured wolf and nurses it back to health, gaining its trust in the process. Dog lovers would appreciate this most, though be warned the wolf friend does suffer quite a bit more than they might have enjoyed, and the deficiencies the genre carried - silly made-up language, macho acting and gestures to denote primitiveness, etc - were certainly there. Yet even with those caveats, it satisfied on its own basic doggy terms. Music by Joseph S. DeBeasi and Michael Sterns.
[Sony's Blu-ray has a choice of the theatrical version or director's cut, deleted scenes and a bunch of skimpy featurettes as extras. The dog was called Chuck, incidentally.]
American director of socially conscious thrillers, usually with his twin brother Allen. Menace II Society and Dead Presidents were violent urban crime stories, but with From Hell they transported their style to Victorian England for a Jack the Ripper tale. They both returned after too long away in 2010 with religious sci-fi The Book of Eli and Albert set out on his own in 2018 with prehistoric doggy story Alpha.