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Brimming with atmosphere

Kodi Smit-McPhee in Alpha.

Kodi Smit-McPhee in Alpha.

Alpha
4 stars
Director: Albert Hughes
Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Morgan Freeman, Natassia Malthe
Duration: 96 mins
Class: 12
KRS Releasing Ltd

That font of knowledge, Wikipedia, tells me that ‘Man’s best friend’ is a common phrase about domestic dogs, referring to their millennia-long history of close relations, loyalty and companionship with humans. The first recorded use of a related phrase is by Frederick the Great of Prussia. Interesting.

“Before the evolution of wolf into dog, it is posited that humans and wolves worked together hunting game,” adds Wikipedia.  It is from this theory that the story at the heart of Alpha springs, presented as the origin story of this millennia-old human-canine bond.

Set during the last Ice Age, approximately 20,000 years ago in what is now Europe, we are told, Alpha charts the story of young Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) He is injured and left for dead by his tribe during their annual bison hunt and is first attacked by, and then befriends, a wolf as he struggles against the unima­ginably harsh elements to find his way back home. 

An opening voiceover, narrated by the ubiquitous Morgan Freeman, sets the scene both narratively and visually. A verdant landscape unfolds before us – a wilderness vast, unspoiled, unending. Its immeasurable beauty is as haunting as it is threatening.

The threat is made evident in the scene that follows: a heart-in-mouth few minutes as a tribe, led by the imposing Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), lie on their stomachs, quiet­ly, in wait, stalking the bison. Cued by a hair-raising war cry, the tribe launches its attack.

It is a scene that is equal parts heart-wrenching and daring, truly excitingly rendered. And it is here that Keda, Tau’s son, is seriously injured and, as he is tossed in the air by a bison’s horn, we flash back a few days to learn more about Keda and his tribe.

A film that charts emotions as accurately as the journey

Here, we discover not a group of primitive hunter-gatherers but a tribe of resourceful and intelligent people as it prepares for the annual hunt which will provide them with food and clothing for the oncoming winter. It is a civilisation that is remarkably sophisticated in its planning for the hunt, steeped in tradition in its rituals of celebration and mourning.

The filmmakers have also crea­ted an original language for the smattering of dialogue that we hear. It is used sparsely. Yet, the characters communicate effectively with one another – a simple gesture or a glance often speak volumes.

That there is a strong sense of community and family is immediately clear, and in an intimate scene, Keda’s mother expresses her concerns that Keda may not be ready for his first hunt, and initiation into adulthood… little knowing her intuition is spot on.

Interestingly, it is this strong family dynamic that spurs Keda on in his odyssey once he gets over his initial despair at his predicament. It is his longing to be back home that gives him the impetus to fight on.

And it is that determination which helps him defend himself as he is attacked by a pack of wolves, injuring their leader. Yet, it is his more tender side that pushes him into nursing that wolf he names Alpha, initia­ting a bond that will last for a very long time.

It is a coming-of-age story about the tribulations of early adulthood, with all its complexi­ties and emotions. It is told with utmost simplicity, yet it overflows with heart.

The screenplay also has place for a smattering of humour in the middle of the action.

It provides oodles of excitement and the occasional jump-out-of-your-seat moment; high drama as the badly-injured Keda battles against incredibly harsh elements of climate and nature; and plenty of emotion and poignancy in equal measure. This is all portrayed with intensity and authenticity by Smit Mc-Phee, who effortlessly carries the film on his slender 22-year-old shoulders.

Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt’s screenplay comes from a story by director Albert Hughes, who has created a film that not only charts Keda’s emotions as accurately as it does his journey, but one that is brimming with atmosphere.

The opening bison hunt is a prime example of superbly-used CG. The changing seasons – where the verdant scenery transforms into a blindingly white ice-filled landscape as winter sets in – are wondrous, as are the stupendous celestial panoramas unsullied by light pollution, allowing the stars to shine in all their gorgeous, glistening glory to serve as a guide for the ailing protagonist as he makes his peri­lous journey back home with his new best friend.

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