Alpha (3 stars)

Alpha

Boy meets dog in a heartwarming and spectacular fable that falls just short of its epic ambitions

The familiar boy and his dog story gets the Paleolithic treatment in this spectacularly beautiful coming-of-age-in-the-Ice-Age fable, in which a young hunter and a lone wolf form the original bond that will make canines man's best friend down through the ages.

Kodi Smit-McPhee, so effective in The Road and Slow West, is the human star as Keda, a tribal chief's anxious, weedy son on his first hunt to prove his manhood, somewhere in Europe 20,000 years ago. Thrown off a cliff by an understandably enraged bison, Keda is left for dead, but the lad is tougher than he looks. Thus begins a perilous wilderness survival adventure (with shades of The Revenant), in which he tends to his gruesome injuries and starts limping the long way home alone, with only the stars to guide him across a vast, snowy, primeval world.

One close brush with death has Keda escaping a wolf pack, but the sensitive boy empathises with the injured pack leader who's left behind, so he carries it to shelter and nurses it. Slowly fear and mistrust give way to sharing warmth, hunting together and accidentally inventing the game of 'Fetch'.

It is a fantasy but a not-too-fanciful one that feels sufficiently authentic to overcome any scientific or historical quibbling. Along with the cornier formulaic moments – guaranteed to make dog people roll over and wag their limbs in delight – there are heart-stopping moments of suspense, well-executed action sequences and glorious visuals; Austrian cinematographer Martin Gschlacht makes the most of Canadian and Icelandic landscapes to give us a majestic, untouched natural world. An inventive underwater sequence is breathtaking.

Dialogue, delivered in a specially invented language that is subtitled, is minimal. That's something of a blessing, since most of the talking is Keda's father imparting life wisdom and survival tips in aphorisms that might have come out of a fortune cookie. Like any canine lover and his pet, Keda and Alpha find their own way of communicating and we don't need subtitles to understand what they are thinking or feeling. Food good! Sabre-toothed tiger bad!

Smit-McPhee's partner in peril is played by a handsome Czechoslovakian wolfdog called Chuck, and what a clever boy he is. The chemistry and affection between the two are winning. Albert Hughes, making his solo directing debut without twin brother Allen (with whom he made Menace II Society and From Hell), has bitten off a lot and realises his ambitions well on the technical side – special effects seamlessly integrate with the scenery and the drama.

The emotional elements are pleasing, but all the right beats don't quite come together as an overwhelming experience, meaning it comes up a bit short of being truly epic. Still, it is marvellous to see such a large scale, IMAX-worthy picture with an abundance of old-fashioned heart amid the wham-bam franchises that fill our summers.

General release from Fri 24 Aug.

Alpha

  • 3 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 1h 36min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Albert Hughes
  • Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Natassia Malthe, Leonor Varela
  • UK release: 24 August 2018

An epic adventure set in the last Ice Age. Europe, 20,000 years ago. While on his first hunt with his tribes most elite group, a young man is injured and left for dead. Awakening to find himself broken and alone – he must learn to survive and navigate the harsh and unforgiving wilderness. Reluctantly taming a lone wolf…

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