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Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018 02:49 pm

“Alpha” A Surprisingly Effective Dog’s Tale

I’ve seen my share of dog-and-his-boy stories and Albert Hughes is worse than some but better than most.  Taking place some 20,000 years ago during the last Ice Age, this unique setting helps distinguish it from similar tales, providing a fresh set of perils where viscous predators and securing a food supply is concerned, while the barren locale effectively underscores the ever-present danger of the elements.  To be sure, the story contains little in the way of surprises, but the energy displayed by Kodi Smit-McPhee and his canine co-star will us to see this through to the end.

A dog and his boy in Alpha.
Courtesy Columbia Pictures

At first glance, young Keda (Smit-McPhee) doesn’t appear to made of the stern stuff required to be a part of hunting party for his nomadic tribe. Yet, it’s a rite of passage that he must endure and sets out with his father Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhanneson), who happens to be chief.  Keda is much more introspective than his peers and elders, hesitant at one point to finish off a kill and reluctant to revel in the success of the other hunters.  However, an accident occurs that separates him from the group and forces him to reach deep within if he wants to survive.

Fortunately, he encounters a wolf that’s been separated from his pack, nurses him back to health and, as a result, soon has a loyal friend who will help him survive. Keda names him Alpha and the relationship they form is quite unique.  In hunting together - the wolf flushes out the prey, the boy delivers the killing blow – these two form a bond based on their mutual interest in survival and admiration for their abilities to adapt and grow.  As a result, the bond they form seems quite genuine so when the audience’s heartstrings are yanked, the emotion these scenes render are genuine and poignant.  

Alpha and Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) get to know each other in Alpha.
Courtesy Columbia Pictures

What with Menace II Society, From Hell and The Book of Eli on his resume, one would assume director Albert Hughes would be out of his element with this prehistoric tale.  That couldn’t be farther from the truth as he renders some beautiful moments, while taking an imaginative approach to action beats we’ve seen many times before; of particular note is a scene that finds Keda trapped under the ice with Alpha frantically on the surface, gazing down and following his master’s progress, trying desperately to help. Though we know the outcome of this moment, the director is able a degree of unexpected and effective tension.

At the core of the story are the themes that Jack London built his career on. Not only is this a tale of one young man’s attempts to survive in a harsh environment, but it also deals with the notion of a wild animal being torn between being domesticated or remaining wild.  In the end Alpha, like the canine characters in The Call of the Wild and White Fang, is forced to decide whether to run with the pack or stay with his human companion.  As with much of the film, his decision will come as no surprise, but that you might be a tiny bit moved by it, does. 


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