For the past two months, at least half of the top 10 movies at the North American box office have been sequels or prequels. That’s not to say the boy-and-dog adventure story Alpha deserves extra credit just for not being part of a series, at least not officially. (If anything, the movie might deserve less credit for attempting to turn a pre-historical setting into a de facto prequel.) But it does serve as a reminder that even if a movie like this appears a little out of place in the summer movie season, there are still other ways to approach the business of spectacle.
Set 20,000 years ago, somewhere in what we now think of as Europe, Alpha begins with Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) joining his father (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) and other tribesmen, dressed for cool weather and crouching close to the ground, so as to better stalk a herd of prehistoric mammals. Keda is clearly nervous, and his father tries to boost his confidence, as the movie keeps cutting to wide shots, immediately establishing a sense of scale and movement.
After that arresting opening sequence ends with a literal cliffhanger, the movie jumps back in time to fill in some details about Keda, his parents, and their tribe. As far as backstory goes, it’s not excessive, but most of it isn’t really necessary either, given how much of the father-son relationship is effectively conveyed through silent looks in that opening scene. Keda’s apprehension, his father’s hopes and fears, and the tribe’s way of life are all in place, and hearing from his mother that he “leads with his heart” both makes explicit what the movie has already implied and over-promises in terms of how much emoting anyone is going to get from Keda.
Eventually the movie resumes its initial action: Keda is thrown off of a cliff, but not all the way off; he lands on a very narrow ledge where he lies unconscious, presumed dead by his tribe. He wakes up alone and, through an overcomplicated series of events, is eventually besieged by wolves. He fights them off, and though he slashes one with his knife, he doesn’t have the heart to finish the poor creature off. Cautiously, he nurses the wolf back to health, names him Alpha, and sets off to find his way home. He’s the original boy and his dog, as someone in marketing has doubtless said at some point.
If this movie sounds like Housepets Origins: Dogs on paper, it sometimes leans right into that dubious notion in practice by including dorky prequel-style explanations for things like fetch and tug-of-war, just to make it extra-clear that Alpha is experiencing the world’s first domestication. On a story and character level, Alpha has little to offer beyond survival clichés, more (and better) dog reaction shots than Dog Days, and the sight of a boy growing into a slightly older boy with a bad teenage mustache. On a visual level, though, it’s often gorgeous, using what looks like a blend of natural splendor and judicious computer-generated tweaks to produce a landscape that looks genuinely otherworldly.
It’s not just production value, either. Director Albert Hughes (who directed movies as varied as Menace II Society, From Hell, and The Book Of Eli with his twin brother, Allen, and makes his solo feature debut here) makes better use of the IMAX 3D format than any number of name-brand blockbusters, with inventive but clearly readable stylistic choices like having a collaborative hunt between Keda and Alpha depicted entirely through an overhead shot. His use of slow motion and painterly magic-hour compositions brings to mind Zack Snyder, but without the speed-ramping. He also uses comics-like silhouettes throughout, including a climactic cave-set animal attack that demonstrates great understanding of how hiding special effects can be more exciting than showing them off. This is a great-looking movie, and for the most part the humans stay out of the way.
Alpha has been sold, to some degree, as a family-friendly film, and while it’s too violent and perhaps too heavily subtitled for young kids (or, for that matter, some adults, who may notice how superfluous much of the dialogue is), it’s easy to picture some 10-year-olds taking to its exciting, cornball charms. This is a summer movie that feels designed to transport a younger audience somewhere, not just drag them along for whatever PG-13 ride has been deemed kid-friendly by default. It’s an old-fashioned adventure in more ways than one.