Shot in 2016, Alpha is Studio 8’s first theatrical release, and as debuts go, it's not bad. Set in the last Ice Age (20,000 years ago) in Europe, it tells the story of an adolescent boy who gets separated from his tribe on a hunting expedition and befriends a lone wolf on his quest to return home. The film’s marketing sold it as dramatic reenactment of sorts of how humans started to domesticate canines for both practical and emotional support. For the most part, it accomplishes that goal, though your level of cynicism and love of dogs will probably be the deciding factors in your ultimate level of enjoyment.
Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the young man who’s tapped to go on his first major hunt with his tribe, chosen by his father the chief along with a few other lucky young men. Keda’s mother is uncertain as to whether or not he’s ready, and so is Keda, for that matter. Both of their fears come true when during the hunting party's attack on a pack of bison, Keda is thrown over a cliff and apparently killed. His father is distraught, but is eventually convinced to leave his son behind and return to the rest of the tribe.
Miraculously, Keda survives the brutal fall, but his injuries – particularly his leg – prevent him from catching up quickly and also make him vulnerable to predators. Enter Alpha.
When a pack of wolves attacks him, Keda escapes up a tree, wounding one with the stone knife that’s his only remaining weapon. When the other wolves abandon the injured animal, Keda’s gentle nature refuses to allow him to leave the creature behind, so he nurses it back to health. The two share a recovery together, and over the course of what appears to be a few days forge a tense truce that’s solidified when Alpha realizes Keda is the only food source available. After that, the film kicks into high gear, and we’re treated to money montages of Keda and Alpha learning how to hunt together, play together and keep each other warm at night all the while Keda follows the stars back to his family. We won’t spoil the ending, but it’ll have you wondering if you missed a Disney title card at the beginning; it's a marked departure from the visceral way the film begins.
Alpha’s kind of a sneaky family film in that it doesn’t immediately present itself as something particularly sentimental. The first third showcases the rugged and difficult path to survival for humans of this era, and it makes sure not to shy away from opportunities to put audiences ill-at-ease. Keda’s “death” is truly harrowing, as is an attack on the herd of bison that opens the film before flashing back to the weeks before the hunt. The cinematography is indulgent in just the right ways, gripping tightly on Keda’s face as he’s dragged toward the edge of a cliff by a justifiably p*ssed bison only to widen and slam to a halt as he’s thrown over.
The 3-D experience is incredibly rewarding, given the scale of the landscape the movie attempts to capture. The use of actual animals in place of CGI creatures makes a literal world of difference. Alpha ups the stakes right out of the gate and presents us with something truly compelling. But it doesn’t maintain that throughout the second half except in brief moments.