It bears some aspects of a shaggy dog story, but Alpha's prehistoric panorama is worth meandering in.
Directed by Albert Hughes
Written by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt and Albert Hughes
With Kodi Smit-McPhee (Keda), Johannes Hakur Johannesson (Tau), and Chuck (Alpha)
Spoiler alert: mild
"This is it," I said, months ago. "This is going to be the one that does it right, this is going to be the best caveman movie ever made." You know, in other words, a good caveman movie, or at least a good caveman movie I didn't feel faintly stupid recommending. This was before I knew about the postponements, which found it dumped into a mid-August slot a year after it was finished, always a great sign of any film's quality. It was also before I heard about the bison they may or may not have murdered on the set, which I could be angrier about, especially since I truly was not aware there were any non-digital bison in this movie; and I probably would be angrier about that if I didn't believe them when they said they were butchered properly, and the poor things were set to be turned into jerky anyway. (Alpha was refused a "no animals were harmed" bumper from the ASPCA, but those maybe aren't the most meaningful things in any world where every cast and crew scarfs down catered luncheon meat.)
So the biggest bias I had going into it was against its lousy title, which, besides being a dubiously-worthwhile co-option of questionable ideas about wolfpack behavior and/or their applicability to human nature, also seemed tailor-made for a slew of inevitable headlines, like "Alpha fails to dominate at the box office," or "Opening at ten million bucks, Alpha gets cucked." (Not that The Solutrean, the original title, exactly rolls off the tongue, nor even clues you in to the movie's subject matter, unless you happen to be an aficionado of anthropology.) But somebody at Sony decided to court fate, and, having caught her, Alpha has indeed proven itself a pretty miserable failure with general audiences—for example, the tiny general audience I saw it with, that was even smaller at the end than it was at the beginning.
It's a damn shame! Because Alpha probably does earn that "best caveman movie ever made" title. Yet it's also not surprising, since I came out of this caveman movie wondering who the hell it could have possibly been made for, and the only answer I could think of was "me."
In terms of narrative, it's simplicity incarnate, to the point you could almost accuse it of being nonexistent, at least beyond the nakedly elemental arc it provides its hero. But Alpha is not much of a literalist document of how Keda, the callow son of a Paleolithic chieftain, took ahold of the raw masculinity he needed to survive, nor of how Keda, when he was separated from his tribe after being injured on his first hunt, managed to wound, then befriend, then domesticate, the wolf he eventually named "Alpha." It contains those things in its "plot," but mostly Alpha is a fable—verging on the phantasmagoric, and outright daring you not to call it "mythic"—about how humankind made itself master of the natural world. It's about nothing more nor less than itself, then, and I've always said that's just about the best thing any movie could be.
Sony's done a pretty fair job of covering up what the movie they paid for's "about," though. Conceived and directed by Albert Hughes (working for the first time on a feature without his brother Allen, and, indeed, for the first time at all in six years), Sony's played up the heartwarming "first dog" angle, something that does not manifest even in a nascent way until about forty minutes in, though the biggest thing Sony's gone well out of its way to mislead you about is that Alpha's not in English. Instead, it's been written in subtitles, and performed in a conlang developed by linguist Christine Schreyer, based on her best highly-educated guess about the proto-languages spoken by aboriginal Europeans 20,000 years ago. ("Alpha" itself being a translation.) I'm a sucker for any period piece that goes to the trouble of rendering itself in either historically correct or stand-in language (see my high marks for Passion of the Christ or Apocalypto, or, hell, even One Million Years B.C.), but Alpha's conlang, graceful and decisively distinct from the Indo-European tongues, is better than it even has to be. Still, it works here the way it always works with such films: obliging the filmmaker to pursue their story more cinematically, obliging the actors to pursue their roles with a greater emphasis on their bodies and eyes and voices, and providing a foundational verisimilitude that lets everything else about the movie go as nuts as it needs.
Alpha's a visual feast from front to back, and it's terrifically well-acted from everyone important, and you better believe it gets nuts; but it does not do this before it lays a little more necessary groundwork, returning to the beginning after an in medias res opening that functions better than most do, in part because the res it's in the medias of comes back around only about half an hour later. (Another fun fact about Alpha is that, in this age of every single Goddamn movie being grotesquely overlong, Alpha grasps the epic in only 96 minutes.) That groundwork, anyway, is its no-nonsense approach to Paleolithic culture. It likewise entails a lot of guesswork, and quite probably doesn't even rest on good anthropology (Keda's nuclear family seeming, perhaps, a few millennia too soon), but one thing Alpha has no time for, whatsoever, is savages—noble or otherwise. Instead, 20,000 years in the past, but without any sort of jarring anachronism to it, we find recognizable human beings with recognizable human issues (mostly father-related), each a bright and sociable problem-solver and tool-user, no more in tune with the Earth than any other animal struggling upon it in its bid to survive. (The sheer waste they make of that bison herd is stupefying.) It turns out their major point of distinction with we moderns is a necessarily higher tolerance for the more repellent parts of the world we live in. But then, being terrified of shit is, in evolutionary terms, a very recent development; the Solutrean hunters have fewer such compunctions, and so I won't say that Alpha doesn't draw at least as much of its magnetic fascination from the ways in which we differ, too.
Completing the scene-setting is some fine production and makeup design, courtesy John Willett and Charles Porlier respectively. This leaves out costume designer Sharen Davis only because I haven't quite decided whether I like how neat her department's leatherwork looks; perhaps it's only my presentist chauvinism talking when I say it's not great that one might feel comfortable using the word "jacket" to describe Keda's outerwear. But the makeup (and casting) is something to commend without such caveat, and Alpha peoples this post-glacial Europe with something a little to the left of the bog-standard white people we'd usually get. I don't think it's actually correct—for the hunter-gatherers of this time and place should still be quite duskily melanized (and I half-wonder if the west Asian phenotype we get was only a depressing commercial compromise that Hughes just had to deal with)—but it works, regardless, and gets you closer to the real thing than any caveman movie has before, compelling you to notice early and often that unlike any modern sampling of white folks, nobody here has anything but dark brown hair and dark brown eyes. It has the added effect of reminding you that this tribe is an extended family—that, frankly, humans have inbred a lot—and the actors' resemblance to each other suggests something much more than skin deep.
But then, as intimated, it gets nuts. Alpha is a tremendously fine-albeit-simple story of a young man pushed by his father past where he was ready to go (and, going against the grain of the usual telling of that story, suggesting that his father was right to do so)—and it's a good story of how Keda took the raw material of a wolf and invented a dog, too—but it's vastly more about individual moments, delivered inside fantastic tableaux of a prehistoric world. Alpha eschews the typical caveman movie model of introducing blatant paleontological lies to get its thrills across (it also eschews the typical caveman movie "romances," thank God), but Hughes has made a movie full of thrills of a different sort, anyway—mostly, that is, because let me tell you, Alpha uses the bleak darkness outside a campfire to bring us 2018's best jump scare. Either way, it's no more bound to any thoroughgoing realism than its genre usually is, which is why Keda's anabasis possesses little-to-no chronological, geographic, or even geological coherence, with the single clearest marker of time being the centipede that crawls onto Kodi Smit-McPhee's upper lip two-thirds of the way through, and which is clearly mostly symbolic, rather than an indication that the character, played by an actor 20 years of age at the time of shooting, has hit puberty.
The upshot, however, is that Hughes has made a movie that's almost all grace notes, with a special emphasis on unusually long shots with flat, horizontal staging, that tend to turn human and beast alike into silhouettes moving against color-corrected skies (usually orange or purple), as if Hughes looked at Isle of Dogs and said, "I can make a movie about dogs that looks more like a diorama than that, even if Wes Anderson's movie about dogs literally is a diorama." It's probably no accident that so many of the most memorable images of Keda's journey evoke cave art at the same time they present an alien, alienating landscape that does not remotely resemble the one that, over the millennia of human dominance, has become tamed. In the same way, Hughes wants you to remember that, back in the Before Times, the nights were dark, and so the nighttime backdrops are more like blazing Hubble photographs of the Milky Way than a denotative depiction of "the sky," and the director demonstrates a film-long fascination with things that look like stars, and could be briefly mistaken for them, or used to match-cut with them, like rising embers, or fireflies, or snow. Again, the effect is an astonishingly beautiful, but crushingly hostile universe.
This brings us to how Hughes and editor Sandra Granovsky have put their film together, and if Alpha is maybe not 2018's best-edited film, it's easily the most, with every possible manner of transition being trotted out for what often appears to be the sheer joy of it, not least some really excellent computer-assisted time-lapse photography, and some impressionistic cutting around a lightning storm that is quite likely the loopiest thing I've seen in a live-action film this whole year—not to mention that student-film dissolve from Keda's right eye to a noontide sun. "But why?" you would certainly ask. Only Hughes can say, but I imagine he'd tell you, "It looked cool," this being the hallmark of the filmmaker, though it has perhaps never been as welcome as it is here.
If Alpha is focused on its moments—"before there were stories, there were events"—then the downside is that it's awfully vignettish, and in fact it feels a little like a whole new movie's spooled up around the time Keda takes Alpha on as his companion. (The "making fetch happen" scene is already a little infamous, and, needless to say, this movie has less-than-zero interest in how wolves actually became dogs—a long, slow process of wolfpacks following human groups and eating human trash and being subjected to the classic selective pressure of being killed if they appeared slightly threatening. Alpha, being in essence a myth, implies through ellipsis and editing a very, very different genesis, a metaphor for the two species creating something new together, and that's when the movie really comes together as its best self, turning that title into something of a gag, too.) Keda, in any event, has somehow managed to befriend one extremely well-behaved wolf (played with good poise by the production's Balto, Chuck, who still does not strike one tremendously strongly as "prehistoric wolf"), and there's a part in the middle of Alpha that could be just about any boy-and-his-dog story, cutesy and even a little goofy, if only offensive in the context of what had been, mere moments earlier, an extraordinarily hard-nosed tale about life in the Upper Paleolithic. It feels oddly frivolous while you're moving through this interlude, even given its function of demonstrating the two bonding as master and pet, and establishing the stakes for when they're threatened and separated later.
For the same reason, Alpha also has a difficult time picking up momentum: for my part, it's much too pretty to ever be bored by it, but I could understand the perspective of someone who was, for it never really takes on much of any shape beyond its rendition of the old incredible journey (that lacks credibility in this instance mostly because it appears that the homeward leg of it is noneuclidean, and somehow ten times longer than the trip there). Now, Alpha is peppered with some great setpieces (a sequence involving a slip beneath the ice being probably the visual and visceral highlight of the film), but it remains a movie that sticks to its scenes-from-the-Stone-Age conceit for better and for worse, and while it has its emotional culminations—I won't lie, there are several parts of this movie that brought a tear or two—it basically dispenses with any actual climax. Alpha wastes a fair number of opportunities to be better, cooler, more thrilling. In some cases, it's utterly baffling, as when Keda and Alpha find themselves starving, yet curiously overlooking a pile of food that does happen to be sitting right next to them. In other cases, the reasons are bracingly self-evident, and I hope this doesn't sound contradictory, because I do think it's an absolutely gorgeous film, but it's also a movie that doesn't look anywhere near the $51 million it reportedly cost (another nail in the mid-budget coffin, this), and Alpha serves as a healthy reminder why blockbusters cost so damn much, namely because CGI isn't actually cheap, and when it is (that vulture!), it shows.
So it's a film with blatant flaws, some of them systemic, yet many of them are effectively inextricable from all the things it does right. The thing it does most right of all is to move, scene by scene, from semi-grounded history to Hughes's singularly-overheated vision of how we created our world with just the right combination of kindness and cruelty. In this, it is exceptional, so check it out while you still can.