Director Albert Hughes’ Alpha has bounced around more times than a Superball in a dryer—never a good sign. Initially set for release last fall, the film was postponed six months to this past March, then to September, and now here we are in August. Since it’s normally a sure sign that something is rotten in the state of Denmark (or the Canadian tundra, where much of Alpha was filmed), imagine my surprise when the movie turned out to be one of the more memorable and certainly ambitious of the year.
Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Keda, a young man coming of age in his father’s tribe during the Stone Age, in what is now Europe. (We’re told the events unfold 20,000 years ago, which would make him a Solutrean—the film’s original title.) During the annual pre-winter hunting expedition, Keda gets tossed off a cliff and seemingly killed by a bison, forcing the tribe, which is unable to reach his body for burial, to mournfully continue its trip. When Keda comes to, he manages to make it safely down from the cliff shelf that caught his fall, and he begins the arduous journey home. He is attacked by wolves, however, but successfully fends them off, injuring one in the process. The next morning, Keda befriends the animal, names him Alpha, and carries him to shelter so the two can begin to heal before winter sets in.
Hughes came up with the plot himself—the original “boy and his dog” story—and first-timer Dan Wiedenhaupt crafted the screenplay with the help of an anthropologist, who devised an entirely new language for the film. (What sparse speaking there is comes with subtitles.) Directing for the first time without his brother Allen (as The Hughes Brothers), Albert took what many would consider a fool’s errand (lesser-known star, never-before-heard language, largely a one-man show, canine co-star), and turned it into something poignant and engaging.
At its heart, Alpha is fairly basic, but, as Hughes proves, even the simplest narratives can be utterly engaging. Between the fine work of Smit-McPhee and the breathtaking cinematography by Martin Gschlacht, Alpha plays like a sweeping and complex drama. Whether it’s shots of Keda trudging through the snow, the vertigo-inducing views from the cliff ledge, or swoops through canyons and across prairies, the camera never stops providing awe-inducing shots that can’t help but pull you in. And the fulfilling story does the rest.
We may never know why Sony delayed Alpha for so long, but it’s quite possibly because they had no faith this project would ever fly (and continued to be nervous even after seeing the finished product). And yes, on paper it’s the kind of thing that execs would toss aside after the pitch meeting. Alpha certainly won’t set the box office on fire, but that’s not because it doesn’t deserve to. It defies the odds (and lengthy delays) to emerge as one of the better movies of the summer.