On its face, Albert Hughes’s Alpha sounds like a joke, the endpoint of years of franchise-starter formulas at last yielding a conceit as sublimely ridiculous as an origin story for domestic dogs. Set in 20,000 B.C., the film introduces us to Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young hunter who finds himself on the wrong end of a bison stampede. Just as one of the charging beasts flips the boy into the air at the edge of a cliff, the screen abruptly fades to black as the text “One week earlier” appears. This tedious screenwriting gimmick, which should never have survived the thorough roasting Dan Harmon gave it on Rick and Morty, sets the tenor for the film’s structure, which reduces the domestication of wolves to a series of simplistic interactions that don’t exactly convey the difficulties of a wild animal overcoming millennia of instinct.
Separated from his tribe, Keda struggles to return home while coping with his injuries, searching for food and staying one step ahead of predators. Among the latter are wolves, a pack of which ambushes Keda, who escapes their clutches but not without injuring one of the animals with his knife. Rather than kill the beast for food, or to assure his safety, Keda nurses it back to health, gradually winning its trust. What soon follows is a predictable charting of the first stages of the human-pet timeline, evoking the most stereotypically cute images we hold in our minds about dogs: from Keda’s tentative attempts to treat the snarling wolf, to shows of mutual trust, to, finally, playful interactions of the animal tugging at Keda’s scarf or fetching a stick.
Throughout Alpha, a sense of modernity is retroactively applied to primitive human society. Though Keda and his tribe speak in a prehistoric language, the subtitles show these people to be capable of communicating in complex sentences. Keda’s father, the chieftain Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), waxes philosophically about mortality, while Keda’s one-sided conversations with his pet wolf are deeply contemplative. Even Keda’s attitude toward killing animals suggests that of a squeamish modern-day child who’s been transplanted to a place and time where humans must kill for their food.
Alpha was shot in high-quality IMAX 3D, yet its images are uniformly dim and washed out. The closest thing one gets to a compelling image in the film is of Keda silhouetted by luminous, star-filled skies at night, but there are so many variations of this shot that its beauty loses all meaning after the first 30 minutes. And without rhyme or reason, Hughes frequently breaks up such monotony with montages that rapidly cut between epic, untamed panoramas. Images of flat, grassy steppes collide with snapshots of snow-capped mountains, which then dissolve into views of arid deserts and verdant valleys. These endless shots take up a significant portion of Alpha’s running time, and they trap the film between a straightforward narrative feature and the bland, screen-saver nature porn of museum-bound IMAX documentaries.