Even Cavemen Need a Good Dog in Prehistoric Epic ‘Alpha’

Here is a caveman movie specifically for dog lovers. “Alpha” attempts to imagine the first time a human looked at a canine and realized they were meant to be companions. Set in a prehistoric world, it is imagined by director Albert Hughes with many wide vistas and enticing photography. What it lacks in story it tries to fill with visual grandiosity and a hunch that many audience members will simply swoon over at the cute dog. You forgive its faults because its heart is in the right place, even as it features early people in perfectly-stitched pants.

Set 20,000 years ago in Europe during the last Ice Age (as the required title card helpfully informs us), the movie opens in a vast plain where a group of hunters prepare to rush a pack of bison. After a spectacular scene which ends with one of the hunters getting thrown into the air by one of the beasts, the movie cuts to a few weeks prior. We meet Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who belongs to a tribe of Cro-Magnons known as Solutreans. Living amid a glacial landscape of Wooly Mammoths and other prehistoric mammals, Keda’s people live in relative peace. Keda is deemed old enough to join his father Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) and the tribe’s elite band of hunters for a great bison hunt. The hunt goes bad when Keda is injured and falls down an enormous cliff. Devastated, Tau and the others believe Keda to be dead and return home. But Keda is of course quite alive. He manages to treat his wounded leg and attempts to trek back home. On the way he is attacked by a pack of wolves. He manages to injure the Alpha wolf and takes the animal into a cave to treat its injuries. A bond begins to form between the two as Keda slowly domesticates the wolf and finds himself a new companion on his perilous journey to rejoin his tribe.

“Alpha” is a film that is best experienced in the IMAX format in 3D. Because Hughes is more concerned with the visual than the narrative here, the movie works best on the biggest screen you can find. The cinematography by Martin Gschlacht fills the canvas with rivers and valleys taken out of paleoart books. On IMAX shots of the starry firmament are striking and immersive, or a moment where Keda and the wolf stare up at an aurora borealis has real beauty. The environment of the film feels like a trip 20,000 years into the past, even when the CGI details take on a bit of a Zack Snyder look. “Alpha” is so dominated by its aesthetic that it’s almost easy to forget the plot, instead we expect Richard Attenborough to start a narration.

Aside from the impressive visuals, “Alpha” is curiously a movie where not much happens in terms of narrative. This is a much more intelligent and thoughtful movie than something like Roland Emmerich’s “10,000 B.C.,” and it is trying to shake off the B-movie notoriety of most cavemen movies. But Hughes is so intent on attempting to create a semi-meditative experience that at times the movie meanders. The opening scene has real adrenaline with the stampeding bison and Keda nearly meeting his doom. Another great scene involves Keda finding himself trapped beneath a frozen lake as Alpha desperately stares through the ice. It’s a recycle from many other survivalist movies, but Hughes is a filmmaker of style. Another scene involving a sabretooth tiger inside a dark cave is filmed with an interesting subtly that sets it apart from your average humans versus beasts flick.

Yet in-between these moments we never truly feel the plight of Keda’s journey. The set-up pulls you in, especially since it involves Keda taking a fall so brutal you wonder how he managed not to break anything vital (although he’s only awoken by a pesky vulture). The moments where he bonds with Alpha, teaching it to lap water from a stone bowl, fetch and dine on maggots are fun in a cheesy way. We are supposed to nod our heads and think, “ah, so that’s how it all began,” etc. But once the two embark on their trek nothing much happens except a lot of beautifully-shot moments of the two walking, running, occasionally killing a rabbit. You may argue that Hughes is going for realism, but Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1981 movie “Quest for Fire,” possibly the best film about our prehistorical ancestors, is rugged, full of stark realism but exciting because of the obstacles, creatures and plights its early people heroes face while trying to find fire. That film also featured actors who truly looked taken from the past. Here everyone looks like a cast member from “Vikings,” although not as absurd as Darryl Hannah in “Clan of the Cave Bear.”

Truth be told, the best performance is by Chuck the Czech wolf dog as Alpha. Chuck has a great presence and a killer grin, while the humans are given pretty standard Cro-Magnon dialogue about the earth, water, flint arrowheads and being strong. It is precisely the relationship between Alpha and Keda, combined with the visuals, that still makes “Alpha” an engaging movie when it works. This is Hughes’s first directorial effort without his brother, Allen. Together the pair have made films ranging from the visceral and social like “Menace II Society” to gothic fantasies such as “From Hell.” With “Alpha” Hughes again demonstrates a striking eye, but he should have gone further. Still, it’s an interesting film, best viewed on the biggest screen you can find.

Alpha” releases Aug. 17 in theaters nationwide.