Release Date(s)2018 (November 13, 2018)
Studio(s)Studio 8/Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Releasing (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
Alpha takes place in Europe 20,000 years ago. Tribal chief Tau (Johannes Haukur Johannesson) looks to his young son Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee, X-Men: Apocalypse) to become the next chief. Keda, however, is sensitive and seems too weak to assume the responsibilities. To develop the skills he will need to be a great leader, Keda must learn how to survive in a harsh environment.
For the characters of this distant past to communicate, director Albert Hughes (The Book of Eli) commissioned an invented language of odd-sounding syllables. The actors’ facial expressions, vocal emphases, and reactions clarify meaning, and English subtitles at the bottom of the screen make sure viewers can follow the plot.
The film opens with several Paleolithic bands of men coming together for the Great Hunt. They slink along the ground toward a herd of bison. Their goal is to drive the beasts over a steep cliff, killing as many as possible to provide food for their families. At the right moment, the men begin screaming and running toward the herd, startling them into a stampede and cutting them off from escape. It’s a carefully choreographed, efficient practice. But during the melee, one of the bison tosses Keda over the cliff. Unable to reach him and presuming him dead, Tau and the rest of the hunters mark his place of death with stones and leave.
But Keda is alive, though with broken bones that he sets as best he can with a makeshift splint. Now, weakened and in pain, he must set out on a long, dangerous trek home, with only a map of the Big Dipper tattooed on his hand to guide him. Winter is approaching and he will be at the mercy of the elements.
When a pack of wolves attacks him, he injures the alpha wolf but then feels sorry for the suffering animal and nurses it back to health. The relationship is testy at first, but gradually the wolf recognizes that Keda is not his enemy. Together, young man and wolf – both recovering from their wounds – brave blizzards and hunger as they make their unlikely journey together.
In a punishing environment, Keda learns not only how to use his own wit and skills but also that compassion can be a strength rather than a weakness. This is his passage into adulthood.
Smit-McPhee is on screen for practically the entire film. With little dialogue, he turns in a moving performance that shows the evolution of his character.
The bond between man and dog is traced back to this story of survival, when dire circumstances forced natural enemies to rely on one another. Though dog lovers will especially enjoy this film, it is a solid adventure picture suitable for the entire family despite some intense moments.
Cinematography is spectacular. Filmed on location in Canada by cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, the film offers breathtaking views of snow-covered landscapes, ice lakes, mountainous terrain, and night skies filled with stars. Quiet moments allow the viewer to take in nature’s silent beauty while ironically pointing out that something so lovely can be so potentially lethal.
Rated PG-13, Alpha is neither a sequel nor a retread, making it all the more welcome. It’s a straightforward coming-of-age tale highlighted by magnificent cinematography, seamless CGI, and gripping adventure.
Visual quality on this 1080p high definition transfer is exceptionally sharp, with live action blended seamlessly with blue-screen inserted backgrounds and CGI animals. Color in the tribal scenes tends toward browns and earth tones, and during Keda’s trek in the wilderness, stark whites dominate. Shots of natural landscapes in the beginning are especially impressive. Close-ups of the CGI bison reveal layers of fur that move as the animals move. Bright orange sunsets relieve the bleak sameness of the snow. Aspect ratio is 2.39:1.
Audio is 5.1 DTS-HD. The range is particularly noticeable in the bison stampede, with thundering hooves and the shouts of the tribe members well balanced. Intimate scenes between Keda and Alpha feature nice sound details – a wolf whimper, a crackling fire, a growl, and more.
Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release include both the theatrical version and director’s cut, alternate opening and ending, deleted scenes with director’s commentary, and four behind-the-scenes featurettes. A digital copy is enclosed.
Director’s Cut – This version contains extended and deleted scenes. This slows the narrative a bit but provides more detail about how Keda and Alpha bond.
Deleted Scenes – Three are included. Starscape shows the tribe performing a ritual beneath a star-filled sky. Fight for Survival is a brief montage showing Keda dealing with the severe elements to make his way home. Dream Sequence is a blend of scenes of his father, tribal rituals, and the wolf as Keda sleeps beneath the open sky.
Building the World – The film’s technical advisor and writer attempted to build a world based on what is known about prehistoric people, including their traditions, art, and hunting practices. British Museum curator Dr. Jill Cook comments on the accuracy of objects used in the film based on artifacts in the museum. Director Albert Hughes notes that Dr. Cook “really helped us get the details right.” A language expert designed the approximately 2,000 word language. The filmmakers had to go through lots of reference materials to determine the look of the movie. Part of it was shot in the desert with giant blue screen backgrounds. Location filming was done in Alberta, Canada. CGI renderings of prehistoric animals were incorporated.
Boy and Wolf – Producer Andrew Rona, director Albert Hughes, and actor Kodi Smit-McPhee discuss the casting of the wolf, Alpha. His name is Chuck, and he is a Czechoslovakian wolf-dog imported from France. A real wolf was impractical because it can’t be trained and can be skittish. Chuck’s trainer worked with the animal and Smit-McPhee in the desert to allow them to bond. Smit-McPhee loved working with his canine co-star.
A Hero’s Journey – This profile of actor Kodi Smit-McPhee features crew and cast members discussing the actor’s ability to “capture a tremendous range of emotions.” He’s referred to as patient and methodical. He comments on the heavy fur costume he had to wear, which was hot and uncomfortable.
Meet Chuck – This very brief profile of the wolf-dog star features some scenes of him performing and being rewarded with treats. Crew members note that he loved attention.
– Dennis Seuling