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"ALPHA"
(2018) (Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Action: Having been left for dead after a hunting accident, a young Paleolithic era man sets out across hostile environs to try to make it home, with his only companion being a wild wolf he's nursed back to health.
PLOT:
It's 20,000 years ago somewhere in Europe and a small tribe of Paleolithic era men have embarked on their annual and arduous trek to ancient hunting grounds to kill bison. The tribe's leader, Tau (JÓHANNES HAUKUR JÓHANNESSON), has great hopes that his son, Keda (KODI SMIT-MCPHEE) will one day assume his position, but the young man is inexperienced and has an aversion to killing animals.

When part of the hunt goes terribly wrong, Keda ends up unconscious on a narrow ledge too far down from the top and too high up from the bottom for the others to check on or rescue him. With them believing Keda to be dead, they depart for the long trip back home.

Keda then regains consciousness, manages to get off that ledge, and learns he's all alone. When he's attacked by a pack of wolves, he manages to wound one before escaping to the safety of a tree. But after the rest of the pack has left, he can't bring himself to kill the wolf and instead decides to nurse it back to health.

Upon completion of that, and with an unlikely bond having developed between the two, Keda sets out in an attempt to walk home, accompanied by the wolf he's now named Alpha.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Back in 2015 a movie came out about a small tribe of explorers who clearly believed one of their own was killed and thus left him behind as they set out on their long trek away from there. But the man wasn't dead and despite being injured, alone and in harsh elements, he had to figure out how to get back home. That movie was "The Martian," and while the story of astronaut Mark Watney doing what he must to survive on Mars might not be light years away from the setting of "Alpha," it might as well be.

And that's because that sci-fi tale was set in the year 2035 with all sorts of high-tech instruments at the protagonist's disposal, while our unlikely hero in this tale of survival has not much more than animal pelts and rock spear tips at his, what with it being set in Europe around 20,000 years ago. Oh, and a pet dog...okay, it's a wolf...and it's not really a pet...at least at first.

Working from a script by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt, director Albert Hughes tells a fairly straightforward tale, although it opens with a gripping action scene, rewinds a week, and then gets back to the starting point and moves forward from there. In that opening, we see a tribe of Paleolithic hunters lying flat not far from a herd of bison when the charge order is given. The men race toward the bison that race toward the men when the latter throw a series of spears that land in front of the beasts, sending them back in the opposite direction and over a cliff a few hundred feet high (all the easier to collect them down below).

But one such bison turns the tables on one such hunter, and Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the inexperienced son of tribe leader Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), ends up run over and then accidentally taken for a ride on the animal's horn. It stops short and the young man goes flying off the edge, natch, in slow motion.

We don't see what happens next as the story rewinds to a week earlier where Tau tries to get the young men/boys prepared for a grueling and arduous trek to the faraway hunting grounds. Keda's mother worries that her son is led by his heart rather than his sword (and thus might not make it in a world of survival of the fittest, let alone as the heir apparent to the throne, if you will).

But his father is confident and imparts wisdom to him along the way, including a primitive star map of sorts on the boy's hand. All of which comes in handy later on after we return to and see the culmination of the opening sequence. Keda ends up knocked out on a small ledge too far in either direction of the sheer cliff wall for any sort of rescue attempt.

With him believed dead and the winter season fast approaching, the survivors do the "Martian" thing and leave him there. But like Matt Damon's character, Smit-McPhee's isn't ready to die, and he gets an unlikely companion and, at times, savior, in a wolf that he initially wounds when it's after the human with its pack.

Being arguably the world's first animal lover, Keda can't finish off the canine, and instead decides to nurse the wolf back to health, during which a bond -- unlikely and tentative at first -- ultimately forms. For anyone who's had a pet -- and especially a dog -- this tale will be like catnip (sorry) in terms of pulling you into that connection and their joint efforts to survive.

Unlike his canine companion, Keda initially doesn't look like he'd make it more than a day out in the wild without other humans. But he grows into himself as the story progresses and by the time things look extremely dire for both him and the pooch (and after various perilous moments for both), you might just be fully engaged in rooting for both to succeed.

Hughes manages to pull that off with apparent ease and without the sort of secondary story "The Martian" used where we repeatedly cut away to see those back on Earth as well as the departing spaceship try to figure out how to bring him back home.

Here, it's just the young man and his pet wolf, and despite the limited cast of characters and a really straightforward plot, it all works. And unless you're an animal hater, you might just walk out with both a tear in your eye and a smile on your face. "Alpha" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed August 14, 2018 / Posted August 17, 2018


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