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23 Aug 2018

Becoming Man's Best Friend: 'Alpha' Tells the Touching Tale of a Hypothetical First Friendship Between a Human and a Dog

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Kodi Smit-McPhee in Alpha. Kodi Smit-McPhee in Alpha.

Alpha, a story about the first personal interaction between man and dog, is a winner if 1) you are a dog person, and 2) you can watch a movie taking place 20,000 years ago and believe that the inhabitants could have such stylish leather jackets.

The jackets really are pretty cool—made of buffalo hide, I presume, with lovely fur collars. I think I would buy one if I saw it on Amazon (with fake fur and leather, of course). There’s no way somebody could’ve put these things together way back then, without a sewing machine. If so, that person was the Versace of the day.

Directed by Albert Hughes (From Hell, Menace II Society), this is a sweet hypothetical story about a boy, lost in the wilderness after a hunting trip gone awry, befriending a wolf. It’s not a syrupy-sweet story; the two go through hell trying to find the boy’s homeland during the onset of winter. But if you are a dog person—and I am—the gradual warming of their relationship as they rely on one another to survive is nothing short of adorable and powerful.

Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is on his first buffalo hunt with dad Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). He’s a good kid, but he’s a terrible hunter—and winds up critically injured on a cliff, far out of rescue’s reach. A distraught Tau leaves his presumably dead son and goes home to bang rocks together, or whatever they did in those days. However, Keda isn’t ready to die. A vulture peck on his lip wakes him up; a flash flood creates enough of a cushion for his fall; and he has a new lease on life.

Unfortunately, that new lease involves a lot of vicious animals trying to eat him, with his escapes hampered by an injured foot. One such attack, by a pack of wolves, results in the pack leader wounded at the foot of a tree Keda scampered up to escape. Rather than driving a spear through his wounded foe, Keda takes pity and carries the wounded wolf to a nearby cave.

Things start off with a lot of snarling and growling as Keda tries to establish himself as the master of the situation. Gradually, Alpha (as the dog is eventually named) comes to appreciate Keda’s tendency to provide food and water while only occasionally acting bossy. The two join forces, take turns saving each other’s lives, and become pals.

There obviously was a first time that a man walked up to a dog-like creature and thought, “Say, I would like to play fetch with this beast, as long as it doesn’t bite my face off. Maybe if I give it a biscuit, it will like me?” That dude probably got his face bitten off … but, as we know, dogs became man’s best friend over time. The film contains its interpretation of man’s first tug-of-war with a dog, man’s first game of fetch with a dog, and man’s first campfire snuggle with a dog. Aww!

Hughes doesn’t simply rely on a sweet story. His movie is often gorgeous-looking, featuring majestic landscapes, excellent CGI work and a damn fine dog as the title character. Smit-McPhee (the boy who cried “Papa!” in The Road) is onscreen for almost every scene, and although he’s relegated to a fake caveman language for his dialogue, he delivers some career-best work here, and sufficiently carries the human half of Alpha’s story.

Cavemen movies usually suck. 10,000 B.C. sucked. Caveman starring Ringo Starr sucked. Quest for Fire starring a pre-Hellboy Ron Perlman really sucked. So it’s refreshing to see a film set in prehistoric times that actually engages, provides some thrills and warms the heart.

After the credits rolled on this one, I promptly drove home and gave my little dog some extra treats and belly rubs. Dogs are awesome, and Alpha is a decent-enough guess at what our first hike with one of them was like. Now, if I could just get me one of those snazzy buffalo jackets …

Alpha is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

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