Alpha Review: A gripping tale of survival
The film is also a detailed study of survival, maturity, leadership, and courage in the most trying of circumstances
Director: Albert Hughes
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Leonor Varela, Jens Hultén
Even judging by the visuals alone, Alpha does tremendously well. But its 96 minutes offer so much more than just stunning cinematography and breathtaking locales. A story of ancient European hunting tribes, and the myths and legends they live and swear by, Alpha is also a detailed study of survival, maturity, leadership, and courage in the most trying of circumstances. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the film is the bond shared between man and animal. The legendary loyalty of the wolf comes to the fore as the narrative takes on the bracing winds and biting cold head on. Atmospheric from the outset, Alpha relies on its surroundings and unrelenting weather to make an impression on the viewer. This is so powerful that the chill from the blizzards seeps into your bones and the Aurora Borealis and the vast expanse of the starry night sky have you staring agape at the screen.
Once the first fifteen minutes are away and done with, the film begins picking up serious momentum. These minutes delve into the rituals of the tribe, and have a father (a leader of his people) inculcating a sense of courage in his teenage son, Keda. The dialogue in this first quarter borders on the cliché, with Keda getting a lesson in ‘being a man’ at every conceivable turn. Even though his mother is unsure of his readiness for the big hunt (saying such things as, “he hunts with his heart instead of his spear”), he is taken, regardless. Along the way, they capture a wild boar, and Keda is instructed to kill the animal so that everyone can eat. He is unable to do so, and his father goes on a short tirade about him needing to “earn the respect of his tribe by doing what needs to be done” and “leading by example”. In a brief flashback, Keda is told about the legend of the wolf, and how the alpha protects his pack, no matter the cost.
Only after Keda is thrown off the cliff by a trapped bison does the real narrative begin. His father is shattered, and the inability to save his son (whom he assumes is dead) breaks down the stoic appearance of the consummate leader. He is advised to head back to the settlement, and does so reluctantly, after performing a ceremony. Keda awakens hours later only to realise he has been abandoned. In an attempt to climb down the steep rock face, and in the midst of a torrential downpour, he slips and falls into the flood waters. He regains consciousness in a vast open space, but is hampered by a severely injured leg. After making a rudimentary tourniquet, a visibly frightened Keda goes in search of a safe haven. He settles in for the night on the leafless remains of a tree, gazing up at the stars and dreaming of his parents’ words. A wolf pack attacks him the following day, with the teenage boy having to fend them off for survival. He injures the leader and makes it back to safety in the nick of time. Hours pass, and Keda must figure out a way to get back to his tribe before winter hits. And then, there’s the matter of a dying wolf by his side.
The film is a classic character study of two entities: Keda and the wolf (christened Alpha). The human entity, whose natural survival skills are put to the test in terribly trying conditions (weather, predators, you name it), is pitted against an injured wild animal perfectly suited to the aforementioned environs. It is their gradual dependence on one another that forms the most compelling part of Alpha. Keda has to learn to hunt in order to live, all on his own, and is keenly observed by a convalescing wolf. Their relationship goes from initial distrust and fear (mostly on the part of Alpha) to one of almost total dependence. The scene after Keda kills a rabbit establishes the pecking order between man and beast. A hungry (and aggressive) Alpha lunges for the food when Keda knocks the wolf off its feet. The animal sits down quietly, and waits for the meat to be thrown his way. As their bond grows stronger, it becomes painfully clear that it is Keda who must rely on his animal-friend to escape the ever-present danger of the wild. In equal parts a hard survival tale as well as a sensitive story of human and animal, Alpha throws up some unforeseen outcomes as the end draws near. Not just is Kodi Smit-McPhee impressive as Keda, Chuck, through his role of Alpha, provides a fitting tribute to one of nature’s most honourable creatures.