Review: Action and Friendship at the Heart of Alpha

Perhaps best looked at as a prehistoric twist on the “boy-and-his-dog” adventure story, Alpha is set 20,000 years ago (in the last Ice Age, according to the press notes) in an unknown part of Europe (long before it was called “Europe,” I’m guessing) and centers on a young man named Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee, probably best known for playing Nightcrawler in the latest batch of X-Men movies), who is the son of a tribal leader and going through various test and rituals to prove worthy of being a man. His mother is afraid he’s too sensitive a boy to endure the final test—going out with the men to hunt buffalo—but his father believes that Keda is stronger than either of them know, a theory that is about to be brutally tested as the film goes on.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

During the first attack of the hunt, Keda is seriously wounded and stranded on a ledge that no one can get to. The other tribe members finally convince his father that he is dead; heartbroken, they leave to head back home. Eventually Keda wakes up and extracts himself from the ledge and mortal danger…for a short while. He’s been trained well by his father to get home from anywhere by using the stars and various landmarks, but the journey is fully loaded with dangers from animal predators to severe weather and starvation. Along the way, he finds himself trapped in a tree after running from a pack of wolves, one of which he stabs and is subsequently abandoned by its pack. Seeing a kindred spirit in the wolf, which he names Alpha, Keda begins to help the wolf heal, feeds it, and slowly, the two become hesitant friends and travel companions.

The pair aide each other remarkably in hunting food and just generally keeping each other safe, and it’s almost impossible not to be impressed with the nature of their relationship and the way they seem to complement each other in terms of their abilities. Keda can make a fire and Alpha can rip out the throat of just about any would-be attacking animal. In the spirit of authenticity, the human characters actually speak languages I wasn’t familiar with and are fully subtitled. There are certainly long stretches of the film where there is no talking, but it still seems a strange choice to feature subtitles in a film I’m fairly certain is aimed at a younger crowd. I rather enjoyed that aspect of Alpha.

Director Albert Hughes (one half of the directing brother team who made Menace II Society, From Hell and The Book of Eli) does a remarkable job capturing a sense of time and place. One of Keda’s most savage enemies on his journey home is the impending, brutal winter, and Hughes seems to relish in putting young Smit-McPhee through slicing winds and stinging snow. The nature photography by cinematographer Martin Gschlacht is as vast and beautiful as it is ominous and dangerous. I was fortunate enough to see this in IMAX 3D, and the experience was impressive and truly adds to the sense of isolation. A great number of the animals we see in the film are special effects, but a few of them seem to be real, especially most of the shots of Alpha, which is key to selling the bond the two share.

I know Alpha’s release date got pushed back a couple of times, and I can see why the studio would want to find just the right time of year to release this; it’s a tough sell to both younger and older potential audience members. But I haven’t seen a film like this in quite some time. The relationship between animal and man is much like that in The Black Stallion, but the adventure portion of the film (which is most of it) is the real heart of the experience of watching it.

I’m truly in awe that it exists at all, and Smit-McPhee sells every moment so beautifully that the whole thing ends up working quite nicely. It’s a mild recommendation, but it’s probably the best of the bigger-budget movies released this week.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.