Albert Hughes’ first solo venture – finally apart from his brother and usual co-director Allen after a couple of false starts – is a remarkable cinematic achievement. Visually stunning from open to close, Alpha sees Hughes weave three familiar tales together – a son trying to appease his father, the bonding of boy and canine and the quest to journey home – into a captivating whole.
A plot requiring something of a stretch in the imagination – set 20,000 years ago – sees the film play out rather like a sanitised echo of Iñárritu’s The Revenant; something of an irony, with this being Hughes only non-R-rated feature to date. Whereas Leonardo DiCaprio disembowelled a bear to sleep in it, Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Keda heals his wolf to sleep by it. Pre-Raphaelite in appearance, Keda is the son and heir of tribe chief Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) but is a softer heart than the role of alpha requires; he can carve a neat weapon but shows reluctance in using it. A problem, naturally, for oddly elegiac Tau: ‘Life is for the strong. It’s earned not given.’
It is Keda’s immaturity that proves to be his early downfall, sending him on a road to self-discovery that is more demanding than his father had intended. Against the pleas of Keda’s mother (Mercedes de la Zerda), Tau insists on his son joining him for the tribe’s annual ‘Great Hunt’ – a decision which sees the young would-be-warrior flung off the edge of a cliff by a, today extinct, steppe bison. An artfully captured sequence rather than especially intense one, it is this which opens the film, before a post-flashback reprise some thirty minutes later. Both times hit the mark with stunning panache.
This is a film in which score and cinematography speak as loudly as the subtitled, pseudo-dialogic mutterings of Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt’s script. Joseph S. DeBeasi’s tribal-inspired music adds thrilling urgency to flashes of dramatic intensity and marries well the lush romantic scenescapes of Martin Gschlacht. Burnt umber sunsets, rainbow-dappled waterfalls and misted mountains cast an idyllic backdrop to fronted human endeavours; the natural and man-made wolves in today’s lost harmony.
It is through these sensuous additions that Hughes finds fluidity in a structure that, it could be said, does little more than pull audience and cast through the motions. Keda’s journey sees him survive trials like the attack of wolves and a dive beneath iced water. His coming of age trajectory is visualised through the development of facial hair – which does little to age the youthful looks of Smit-McPhee – and slow mastery of fire lighting.
Perhaps jeopardy is lacking from the film, which carries an unusual, albeit not unwelcome, aura of cosiness for a gruelling survival story. Keda consumes maggots and, in one scene, breaks his ankle out of entrapment with an awful crunch but he also cuddles, rears and swims with wolves. It’s touching and more akin to Brother Bear than Apocalypto.
Whilst this is no feature for younger audiences, there is much here that resembles the film that Pixar’s dull Dinosaur really ought to have been. A masterclass in visuals and charmer in adventurous storytelling.