Allen and Albert Hughes have been making movies for three decades now. Allen has been in the director's chair for all of their projects until now. Albert directs the beautiful yet flawed Alpha. The film marks a departure from their work. This is a survival picture with a tone of style and atmosphere but feels a bit incomplete.
Set in Europe 20,000 years ago, the film follows a tribe as they train the next generation of hunters. Led by Tau (Johannes Haukur Johannesson) the tribe relies on regular hunting tribes to secure food before a long winter. Tau's son Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a timid teenager at the beginning of the story. He leads his existence with his heart over brute strength. On the first big hunting trip he is allowed to go on, he is knocked off the edge of a cliff, badly injured and unconscious. Tau has no choice but to leave him in order to not lose more men. When Keda awakes, he realizes he will have to travel back home alone. That is until he finds an injured wolf that he names Alpha. Keda heals the wolf and the two bond on their journey home.
The film's structure places the thrilling sequence of Keda getting injured at the very beginning of the film as a flash-forward. By doing this, the audience has no time to become emotionally invested in Keda. This really kills how powerful this scene could have been had it come in the natural spot of the story. It is the best sequence in the film and is presented without context. It also prevents the initial hunt from having any suspense as we know what happens. Combine this with some confusing time and location elements and Alpha never is able to generate the energy to make this survival story tense. The journey to the hunting grounds seems to take three days thanks to a gorgeous transition that shows the party traveling. Keda's journey back seems to take weeks or months. It is never clear. There is also a great deal of muddiness to Keda's health. He seems to heal and deteriorate at different paces. A young man sitting next to me asked his mom if Keda was sick or not at one point. Such confusion keeps the sense of danger opaque.
On the plus side, cinematographer Martin Gschlacht created some jaw-dropping, gorgeous vistas. I wished the film had chosen to go the route of The Black Stallion, a clear influence, and kept the film as silent as possible. The dialogue we do get spells out the film's themes over and over again. Hughes should learn to trust his young audience to pull these themes out of the story without the crib notes. Still, at times the film creates a visual poetry rarely seen in family fare. The changing environments and weather that Keda traverses through provide a chance for the filmmakers' visual style to soar. Smit-McPhee never is as compelling as to make the audience get lost in the story but he is never distracting. It is a serviceable performance. The effects and animal acting create a believable creature in Alpha.
Overall, Alpha is a unique family film that is never fully realizes itself into a classic. The film is stylistic yet full of natural beauty. It also functions as an interesting take on the relationship between dog and man. However, Alpha never hits on a deeper level. There is a lack of suspense that could have easily been avoided. I wish Hughes had pushed himself to make a more artistic and brave film.