Note: This article contains spoilers for Alpha and also Homeward Bound.
The truly ancient fascinates us, I think, because it’s from a place beyond our collective recollection. We know where so much of our modern world comes from—the gadgets, the laws, the wisdom about why we should apply heat to our food before we eat it and wash our hands before and afterward—and yet we have to look no further than our own pets before we see a creature that’s been a companion to us for as long as we’ve ever known.
Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly where domesticated dogs come from, with some really fascinating new findings even as recently as 2016, when a study concluded archaeological evidence points toward two geographic origins. (You can read about it here if you have the log-in.) Next to fire and written language, booping the very first snoots of the creatures whose descendants would become wolves and dogs is one of the things we’ve done that secured our place as the dominant species on Earth.
Alpha doesn’t quite convey the gravity of so monumental an event, but it acquits itself fairly well trying.
Alpha opens on the inaugural mammoth hunt of young hunter-gatherer Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in the Europe of 20,000 years ago, during the late Pleistocene Epoch. The hunt goes badly for the untested young man, and his father (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) and fellow tribesman leave him for dead. He’s not, though he does find himself with a busted foot, stranded along the narrow precipice of a cliff face, and in the grip of the merciless wild.
It’s not long before a ravenous pack of proto-wolves senses easy prey and attacks him. When he wounds one and the others leave it for dead, he considers braining the snarling tooth-beast for food, but can’t do it. The audience already knows this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. (No doubt the pedants will complain about the wolves deciding to quit and just leave Keda up a tree when he’s weak, but this is actually pretty realistic: Predators tend to go find easier calories when prey proves elusive and dangerous.)
He names his new friend “Alpha,” of course.
The journey of boy and dog is predictable in its broad strokes if not in its specific plot beats: They nurse one another back to health, learn trust and tactics, develop a bond, and do battle with pitiless nature. This where an inferior Homeward Bound imitator would cut back and forth incessantly between the heroes on their badass journey and some minor characters worrying over them. Alpha does this once and then rightly abandons all other characters to focus on the forging of humanity’s first hunter-dog duo.
In the flashback leading up to the film’s en medias res beginning, we see that Keda’s father and fellow tribesmen see him as weak. He passes the test of crafting a good arrowhead, but he struggles with starting a fire, can’t take a random ass-whupping, and can’t kill. “Life is earned!” his father snarls, before finishing off a beastie himself.
This bullshit has always pissed me off, so while Alpha does feature Keda sternly insisting he eat first when he and Alpha slaughter their prey and roast it over a fire, it is gratifying to see that the entire point of the film is that having some compassion and using teamwork for mutual gain is what makes us stronger than the incessant want that has stalked us like a student loan since the dawn of time.
At one point Keda’s father, Tau, lectures him on the role of an alpha wolf. We now know, from the very man who coined the term, that there are no alpha wolves. It’s hard to tell if the movie knows this and expects us to know it, or if it wants us to know it’s BS from the jump. That matters less than the fact Tau is ultimately proven wrong. The point of forging tools, building shelters, forming societies, and domesticating fluffy friends is that we can shape our destinies.
(An aside: Every other character is named for a Greek letter. Was Keda originally called “Beta” in early scripts before somebody explained to the screenwriters what utterly unwanted baggage that would saddle the film with? It might almost have worked, honestly.)
Getting it right out of the way: Alpha has a fair bit of misinformation beyond the questionably deployed Alpha Wolf nonsense. Dogs likely were introduced to early human tribes in a time long before the events of the film’s ca. 18,000 BC opening. The bones of wolves lying closely to those of early hominids as far back as 400,000 years ago might suggest early cooperation between the two species if not full-on domestication.
And, of course, no proto-wolf-dog creature, living at the other end of 20,000 years of selective breeding, would look like the dogs in this movie.
So what? Alpha goes out of its way to do so much right that it’s easy to forgive a simplistic story and a few details fudged in service of making the thing filmable. For one thing, the actors certainly don’t look like what humans must have back then, but the film also didn’t cast the production to be an egregiously white-washed showcase for actors who don’t remotely look like they might occupy, say, biblical times. Most of the time, that language question in historical films can take you out of the whole thing if you think about it too hard, but Alpha went ahead and hired somebody to invent a whole new damn language and then teach the actors, who hailed from all over the world, how the hell to speak it.
When that degree of care is taken in service of a story that’s straightforwardly badass, it elevates the material in ways a lot more movies should try to emulate. No major star-powered Hollywood production would make its actors go through the trouble of speaking in subtitles for an entire damn movie these days, and if this had gotten the obnoxious, over-the-top treatment, it might well have been saddled with some A-list actor who does not at all look like he might have lived during the last Ice Age. Either of those choices would have harmed this solid little film, because they would have taken the audience out of it for even a moment, and Alpha’s greatest strength is that you’re never out of it.
Alpha won’t make anybody’s Best of 2018 list, but it does feature one shot of human hunters, silhouetted against the sky, hunting dogs at heel. Put yourself back in that time, and imagine you’ve never seen that sight before—a vision of people who have weaponized the fury of nature itself. It feels more powerful than any lightsaber or Infinity Gauntlet.
Kenneth Lowe has an audible range between 40 and 60,000 Hz and olfactory sensitivity 100,000 times that of a human’s. You can follow him on Twitter or read more at his blog.