Director: Albert Hughes
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Leonor Varela, Jens Hultén
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Even judging by the visuals alone, Alpha does tremendously well. But its 96 minutes offer so much more than just stunning cinematography and breathtaking locales. A story of ancient European hunting tribes, Alpha is also a detailed study of survival, maturity, leadership, and courage in the most trying of circumstances. The biggest takeaway from the film is the bond shared between man and animal. The legendary loyalty of the wolf comes to the fore as the narrative takes on the bracing winds and biting cold head on. Atmospheric from the outset, Alpha relies on its surroundings and unrelenting weather to make an impression on the viewer. This is so powerful that the chill from the blizzards seeps into your bones and the Aurora Borealis and the vast expanse of the starry night sky have you staring agape at the screen.
The first fifteen minutes of the film delve into the rituals of the tribe, and have a father (a leader of his people) inculcating a sense of courage in his teenage son, Keda. The dialogue here borders on the cliché, with Keda getting a lesson in ‘being a man’ at every conceivable turn. Even though his mother is unsure of his readiness for the big hunt, he is taken, regardless. Along the way, they capture a wild boar, and Keda is instructed to kill the animal. He is unable to do so, and his father goes on a short tirade about him needing to “earn the respect of his tribe by doing what needs to be done” and “leading by example”. In a brief flashback, Keda is told about the legend of the wolf, and how the alpha protects his pack, no matter the cost.
It’s only after Keda is thrown off the cliff by a trapped bison that the narrative picks up serious momentum. His father is shattered, and the inability to save his son (whom he assumes is dead) breaks down the stoic appearance of the consummate leader. He is advised to head back to the settlement, and does so reluctantly, after performing a ceremony. Keda awakens hours later only to realise he has been abandoned. In an attempt to climb down the steep rock face, he slips and injured himself.
After making a rudimentary tourniquet once he regains consciousness, a visibly frightened Keda goes in search of a safe haven. He settles in for the night on the leafless remains of a tree. When a wolf pack attacks him the following day, he injures the leader and makes it back to safety in the nick of time. Hours pass, and Keda must figure out a way to get back to his tribe before winter hits. There’s also the matter of a dying wolf by his side.
The film is a classic character study of two entities: Keda and the wolf (christened Alpha). The human entity, whose natural survival skills are put to the test in terribly trying conditions (weather, predators, you name it), is pitted against an injured wild animal perfectly suited to the aforementioned environs. It is their gradual dependence on one another that forms the most compelling part of Alpha. Keda has to learn to hunt in order to live, and is keenly observed by a convalescing wolf.
Their relationship goes from initial distrust and fear (mostly on the part of Alpha) to one of almost total dependence. The scene after Keda kills a rabbit establishes the pecking order between man and beast. A hungry (and aggressive) Alpha lunges for the food when Keda knocks the wolf off its feet. The animal sits down quietly, and waits for the meat to be thrown his way.
As their bond grows stronger, it becomes painfully clear that it is Keda who must rely on his animal-friend to escape the danger of the wild. In equal parts, a hard survival tale as well as a sensitive story of human and animal, Alpha throws up unforeseen outcomes. Kodi Smit-McPhee is impressive as Keda, but Chuck, through his role of Alpha, provides a fitting tribute to one of nature’s most honourable creatures.