Europe, 20,000 years ago and a small band of hunters are to embark on a great hunting mission that will make or break their struggling tribe. Chief Tau (Johannesson, Game of Thrones) is proud to take his eldest son, Feda (Smit-McPhee), on his first hunt to groom him for leadership and teach him what it means to be a man in this harsh landscape, but after an accident Feda is thought to have died and the heartbroken Tau troops home. Feda survives, however, and after befriending a wild wolf he names Alpha attempts to make the long hazardous journey back to camp…
For the first time in his career director Albert Hughes attempts a film without his twin brother, Allen. Together they were responsible for 'Menace II Society', 'Dead Presidents', 'From Hell' and 'The Book of Eli' but after Allen went ‘solo’ in 2013 for the Crowe/Wahlberg political thriller 'Broken City', Albert kept his head down, working on something a little different. 'Alpha' almost plays out like a 70s Disney movie with a boy and a wild animal becoming friends and helping each other make it home, but Hughes doesn’t cutesy things up. And then there’s what the film is attempting to document.
What Hughes and co-writer Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt are after here is not the exploration of the emergence of the alpha male, as the title might suggest, but the birth of a more sensitive, emotionally intelligent man. Keda isn’t like his powerful father: He can’t bring himself to kill a defenceless boar; he runs from the charging bison; he can’t make fire; and, what must have been taboo in this society, he expresses empathy for the enemy: Keda nurses a broken ankle throughout and attempts to heal the wound in Alpha’s leg. “He leads with his heart, not his spear,” Keda’s mother whispers to his worried father at one point but it’s this perceived weakness that will save the tribe, and humanity, not hasten its extinction.
Message aside, 'Alpha' is a visual feast with engaging action sequences. The night skies with its shooting stars, fireflies and Aurora Borealis catch the eye, as does the impressive fast zoom over the landscape. The action doesn’t disappoint: 'Alpha' is a punitive plot like 'The Revenant' with Keda and the wolf struggling over harsh terrain and braving all manner of danger: at one point they escape hyenas by hiding in a cave only to learn the cave has another occupant. The bison looked very CGI so it was a surprise to learn that PETA have staged a boycott for alleged ill treatment of bison during the shoot.
It doesn’t have it all its own way. The tribe’s clothing – particularly the snazzy winter coats – are Caveman Chic and it’s rather convenient that while Keda is hanging from a cliff outcrop by his fingertips the sudden rains are so torrential that a flood appears below to soften Keda’s fall. Hughes and Wiedenhaupt wrote themselves into a corner there and took the easiest way out.