Movie Review: Alpha

Ice Age survival drama presents a key moment in a hostile world

Alpha (Alfa)
Directed by Albert Hughes
With Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Natassia Malthe, Leonor Varela, Jens Hultén

Life was tough back in the last Ice Age. The era has been the subject of numerous recent animated films, and now American director Albert Hughes takes a more serious look at survival in a cold a frozen Europe of 20,000 years ago.

The biggest drawback, at least for local expat audiences, is the film is in an invented language with Czech subtitles. The film relies more on scenery and action than on dialogue, but there are a few points that people could miss.

The basic premise is that the young son of the leader of a tribe of hunters gets separated from the rest and left for dead. The bulk of the film is his effort to survive alone and injured as the harsh Ice Age winter sets in.

The film starts with the seemingly fatal accident during a tour de force scene of the hunters attacking a herd of steppe bison, and then goes into flashback.

Keda (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the young hunter. He is depicted as a bit too sensitive, and perhaps a disappointment to his more masculine father, Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). Keda’s mother, Rho (Natassia Malthe) thinks the boy is too young and not at all ready.

The bulk of the film is Keda alone, and later with a wild wolf he names Alpha. It is implied this is the first such cooperation of humans with another species, and the wild wolf is the first de-facto pet dog.

The Ice Age backdrops look gorgeous on a big screen, though where exactly in Europe these mountains, valleys and caves are supposed to be is never disclosed, which is a bit frustrating. Filming took place in Canada, Iceland and the Mojave Desert in California. The locations don’t suggest Europe at all, but nonetheless are often breathtaking.

Films destined to win awards are now being released, and Alpha should get a few nominations at least in the technical categories including cinematography, and possible even costumes for the concept of the Ice Age fashions.

Another unanswered question is who these people are. The only clues given is that they use a red handprint as an important sign, and they make distinctive stone spear points. Not much is disclosed about their beliefs, and some religion or superstition would likely have played a larger part in the group’s lives than is depicted in the story.

But as a survival story, the film largely works. Keda, depicted as a bit soft compared to his peers, has to really rise to the occasion to survive in a hostile world. The film in that respect is similar to the 2015 film The Martian, where an astronaut left behind as dead has to make a long trek to survive, and has nobody else to rely on.

Keda faces all sorts of obstacles in his hostile environment, from wild animals to violent storms. Each of these encounters makes a thrilling sequence. The winter scenes are particularly exciting, as any slight mistake can end in Keda freezing to death.

His relationship to the wild wolf he teams up with creates a sort of love story, for lack of a better word. The two realize that their survival depends on them working together to find food and shelter, and to protect each other from predators.

Their is some sort of message among all of this that compassion is more important to survival than physical strength.

Another question that is unanswered is that it took a week to walk to the hunting grounds where Keda is abandoned for dead, and it takes Keda months to walk back from it. But that is perhaps nitpicking. Finding his village of a handful of tents is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.

Kodi Smit-McPhee should be a familiar face to sci-fi, horror and adventure fans. He had roles in The Road, Let Me In, ParaNorman, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and as Nightcrawler in X-Men: Apocalypse.

Director Albert Hughes is one of the Hughes Brothers, who made it big in 1993 with Menace II Society. Most of their films have been in an urban setting, including From Hell, a film about Jack the Ripper that was shot in the Czech Republic.

The brothers in 2010 made a post-apocalyptic survival film called Book of Eli, and Alpha in a way as a prehistoric survival film is a companion piece; though Albert made it without his brother, and the two have been working separately.

There have been other attempts at depicting Stone Age life, with mixed results. One Million Years B.C. with Raquel Welch, released in 1966, remains a camp classic most memorable for its fur bikinis. The less said about 1981’s Caveman with Ringo Starr, the better.

More serious attempts include Quest for Fire, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud in 1981, was visually stunning and told a fairly believable story. Clan of the Cave Bear, released five years later and starring Daryl Hannah was quite a bit less successful.

More in an action mode, Roland Emmerich’s 2008 film 10,000 BC is perhaps the worst of the bunch, with a poor special-effects driven story and many historical errors.

That makes Alpha and Quest for Fire the best of an admittedly small genre.

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