A boy and his dog, or in this case, proto-dog, making a hard journey home would seem like the perfect family tearjerker for a summer afternoon, but “Alpha” supplies neither the heartwarming moments nor the plausible story necessary to make dog lover cheer for the moment that trust is established. Treacherous situations might make this gorgeously shot film too frightening for small children who would be least bothered by the logical slips down icy slopes and the need to subtitles may push kids into boredom.
Taking place somewhere in Northern Europe, 20,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age, the movie starts on a flat area where a group of men lie on their bellies, spears in hand and ready to rush a herd of prehistoric bison into a mad panicked dash over the cliff. But things don’t go exactly as planned and one horned beast turns around and attacks the younger member of the party, a slender lad with no facial hair (Kodi Smit-McPhee). This is his first hunt and he and the beast go over the cliff, a moment temporarily freezed so that we may travel back in time.
There we meet the lad and his bearded dad and his worried mother. He passes the test of spear-head making but not the one of making fire. Still his father allows him to join this hunting party that must travel many days walking and more miles than is possibly reasonable. They are guided by two things: The stones markers stacked high with painted hand prints to indicate the direction and the pattern to the North Star which is tattooed on their right arms.
They meet up with another group and finally, after a quick but deadly encounter with a saber-tooth cat, get to the plateau where the bison graze. Then we return to the scene that we’ve seen before and we learn that the young boy doesn’t die (You already knew that, right?). After falling over the cliffs that seem to rise straight up like an impossibly tall Cliffs of Insanity, the boy lays unconscious on a small ledge. The group must leave him and instead continue on their mission: to take as much meat as possible back to their tribes for survival.
You’ll begin to wonder about a few things. Why the group has to travel so impossibly far. Why they don’t move their entire camp close to the hunting grounds. How they carry back enough food to each tribe for the harsh winter that will come.
A vulture will help the young boy come to his senses, but he’s alone and how he gets down is not particularly plausible. How he survives how he gets down Less so. This episode might remind you of “The Lion King” or the less popular “The Good Dinosaur.” The boy has a broken leg, but knows just what to do and then after straightening his leg and fashioning a leg brace, he hobbles to the top of this plateau and find a funeral rock pile with as good as his name on it. Now he must survive the dangers by himself. He does find shelter in a conveniently place dead tree and wounds a member of the wolf pack. The wolf pack deserts this wounded but not dead member. And this wolf will become Alpha, the first dog.
The two will find shelter in a cave where you will ask more questions like how will the hobbling boy manage to feed the both of them and maggots is not the calorie-sufficient answer is neither is a rabbit. Ever hear of rabbit starvation?
We’ll get a few lovely aerial shots that will show us how far away this boy is from what little exists of civilization. And you’ll think: Impossible (in more ways than one). Together they shall eventually make it home: A boy and his wolf. They will have learned to hunt together and they will bring more wolves to the pack.
Director Albert Hughes makes the most of this ridiculous script by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt, but since we spend most of our time with Smit-McPhee and the wolf, one can thank goodness for a good looking wolf (and not a German Shepherd dog filling in) and for Martin Gschlacht’s cinematography.
My suggestion for dog lovers is: Sit. Stay (at home).