The relationship between man and dog has been pretty well charted in films and other media over the generations. Here at last, that relationship gets the origin story for which cinema was so desperately yearning.
Set 20,000 years ago, Alpha tells the story of the beautiful moment when a Stone Age boy becomes the first human to realise just how adorable a lil doggo floof can really be when they’re not trying to eat your face. Oh and something about surviving impossible odds to find his way home etc, etc.
It’s a strange production in all honesty, and it feels like one that was originally set up to be one of those documentary IMAX movies rather than a full-blown studio movie. I guess that isn’t helped by Mr Voiceover himself, Morgan Freeman, bookending the film with some voiceover about human history or some guff.
Thankfully there’s plenty going on visually to dispel any worry that Alpha isn’t deserving of a decent cinematic distribution: the computer-enhanced vistas are breathtaking, almost reminiscent of the landscapes from The Revenant in places.
The performance from Kodi Smit-McPhee (of The Road and ParaNorman fame) is front and centre of the feature, and with 99% of the dialogue being not of any living language – save the aforementioned Morgan Freeman voiceover – Smit-McPhee is left doing a more physical than vocal performance. Thankfully he’s engaging enough that the film rarely drags – an even more impressive feat when you consider he’s playing against a wolf that’s CGI for the majority of the running time.
Thus bringing us to the main reason for Alpha‘s existence: the wolf bits. The movie makes no pretence about just how brutal a wolf can be, in fact the whole film is surprisingly violent given its marketing primarily focussed on the “boy meets wolf” dynamic. Without giving too much away, the character of Keda (played by Smit-McPhee) goes through a whole lot before even meeting Alpha the Wolf, and probably not in any way that I could imagine parents being comfortable having young kids see.
(Side-note: Someone brought a baby/toddler to the showing I was at, so God only knows what the parent was thinking there.)
That said, once things settle down and the relationship becomes a bit more domesticated towards the third act, we do get treated to more of these “aww cute doggy” moments. As a dog lover, it’s hard to maintain any substantial critical faculties when faced with a supposedly big scary wolf playing Fetch, but if it works then I see no need to complain.
Ultimately, Alpha is not the best film about a dog/dogs that anyone will see this year; that honour remains with Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. However, you’d be hard pressed to find a better live-action/CGI feature that has people seeing the cute and fluffy in something actually terrifying.
Given the competition on that front, it’s not saying a lot.