Part wilderness survival tale, part prehistoric boy-meets-wolf love story and part American Museum of Natural History exhibit come to life, Albert Hughes’ rugged, rich epic feels just as out-of-time as its narrative of primitive hunters and their Canis lupus pals. It’s a movie devoted to overwhelming viewers with vast, lush vistas of craggy cliffs, lightning-split skylines, endless snowy tundras, impossibly green forests and eye-popping auroras. (Sweeping does not begin to describe the visuals here; it not only deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, it demands it.) It’s subtitled in an unidentifiable pre-civilization language, when it bothers to give its mud-splattered characters dialogue at all. It’s an old-fashioned spectacle that does not feature a superhero, unless you count an ancestor of man’s best friend who fearlessly fights a sabre-toothed tiger. We know this takes place many centuries in the past, but watching this throwback-in-more-ways-than-one, you find yourself thinking: What year is it now? Who the hell makes movies like this anymore?
Speaking of time, Alpha wastes none of it, dropping you into an already-in-progress stalking of a bison herd that culminates in spear-throwing, a stampede and someone being thrown by angry animal into the abyss. Thanks to a flashback — this is the type of film that IDs the setting as “Europe, 20,000 years ago” then minutes later, uses an identical title card that rewinds to “One week earlier” — we learn who this plummeting young man is. He’s Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the son of his clan’s leader, Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). Dad wants his firstborn to become a great chief one day, even though the boy is a bit squeamish about things like, you know, gutting a boar. “He leads with his heart, not his spear,” says his mother (Natassia Malthe). Still, Tau and several other bearded men who look like Sons of Anarchy extras take Keda and his next-gen peers out into the plains. Hesitating in front of a charging beast, our hero is gored and tossed over the side of a cliff. A ledge stops his fall; days later, a flash flood helps him make it back to solid ground. Gravely injured and separated from his people, Tau must make it back to his home before the winter snows turn everything into a frozen deathtrap. And then the wolves show up.
We’d caught glimpses of these predators earlier, when they were howling at a safe distance and helped provide a convenient father-son lesson about being the “alpha” of your group. At the moment, Keda looks like an easy meal for the pack. He knifes one and waits in a tree until the others eventually disperse. Now they are two creatures who are solo and wounded. Mercy is bestowed and trust is slowly gained. At which point, Alpha turns into the steroidal boy’s adventure story you knew was lurking there all along. These two will brave all sorts of dangers and obstacles together, from giant angry kitties to an unforgiving Mother Nature. Sometimes, this movie tells you, it’s not the journey itself but the furry, fangs-bearing friends you make along the way (and help you stay alive) that really matters. It’s the coming-of-Ice-Age parable you didn’t know you really needed.
And you do need what this NatGeo-doc-meets-Quest-for-Fire brings to the table, which is a sense of scale and natural-world wonder that’s been conspicuous by its absence on screens for a long time now. It’s not that Albert Hughes, one half of the twin-sibling directorial duo that burst on the scene with Menace II Society (1993), hasn’t proven his bona fides for shooting ambitious, big-picture projects; along with his brother Allen, he’s responsible for the dark Victorian nightmares of Jack-the-Ripper procedural From Hell (2001) and Denzel Washington’s postapocalyptic romp The Book of Eli (2010). But this feels far more ambitious than his entire filmography combined, with CGI flights through grander-than grand canyons and across mountain ranges blessed by the magic-hour gods butting up against awe-inspiring shots of Canadian/Icelandic/Irish countrysides. (It was quite the globetrotting production, one with a bit of controversy as well.) Even if the Australian Smit-McPhee was not an actor who keeps everything at the same level of high intensity whether he’s playing a caveman, a Cormac McCarthy character or an X-Man, you’re still talking about a film that requires actors to sell lines like “Hyenas, we must find shelter!” to audiences via an unrecognizable, grunt-heavy vocabulary. That, or essentially emote in a silent movie involving running, jumping and spearing wild game. The degree of difficulty is high across the board.
It’s also completely alien to modern multiplex culture despite being tailor-made for it, which may be why Alpha feels more impressive then it might otherwise. Or, for that matter, why the formulaic storytelling beats and a rather questionable relationship to science, historical accuracy, etc. may feel more forgivable. Alpha is not a perfect movie, and it is occasionally a way-too-pumped-up pulpy one relying on big-budget bulk. But it is most certainly a tonic in an age when every blockbuster film feels like part of some endless multiverse-cum-marketing scheme. That fact that both a studio and someone as talented as Hughes were still willing to make something as out-of-step as this is, frankly, inspiring. Not to mention that this is a story about learning and earning leadership, about respecting the world around you, about surviving not just on wits and grit but by working in tandem with others. Who’s to say this Paleolithic parable has nothing to teach us now?