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In 1914, quarry miners in Germany discovered two human skeletons buried with the remains of a dog. Carbon-dated at over 14,000 years old, these remains are the oldest known indisputable evidence of domesticated canines, with disputed evidence going back as far as 36,000 years ago.

To put this in perspective, the Ancient Egyptian empire was founded when the Nile River was colonized roughly 8,000 years ago. The first written language was invented roughly 5,000 years ago. The goddamn invention of the wheel happened roughly 5,500 years ago. So it’s really no wonder why we don’t know exactly how dogs came to be domesticated — we’ve been doing it since before the dawn of civilization. This is quite literally prehistoric.

(Side note: It’s estimated that cats were first domesticated roughly 9,500 years ago. So if you want to know why dogs are stereotypically so much more loyal and easily trained than cats, that’s what an extra five thousand years of selective breeding will get you.)

So here we have Alpha, a movie that dramatizes the very first instance of a wolf befriending a man, giving birth to a long line of domesticated canine companions. While this is obviously something that must have happened at some point, we can safely assume that this movie is not 100 percent accurate to a period of time before the written word. Not for lack of trying, though.

From the very first scene, the filmmakers are clear in their intentions of portraying neolithic humans with mud-caked skin, natty hair, and… well, their teeth are perfect, but I guess even Hollywood can only go so far. Every word of dialogue is subtitled, spoken in some kind of primitive language that may not even be real. The characters are part of a tribe, but definitely not anything that could be called a civilization. They have a loose collection of beliefs, but it doesn’t look like a detailed or organized religion. These are hunter-gatherers, with every aspect of their lives built around survival at all costs. Basically put, even the humans in this movie are only ten hairs away from being gorillas.

Our protagonist is Keda, played by an unrecognizable Kodi Smit-McPhee. He’s the son of the chieftain (named in the credits as “Tau” and played by Johannes Haukur Johannesson), and Keda conveniently comes of age just in time for the annual Great Hunt, in which the men of the village go on a days-long trek to hunt for bison.

(Side note 1: I looked it up — there were in fact European bison back in 18,000 BCE, when the film takes place.)

(Side note 2: Reportedly, five bison were actually killed in the production of this movie, leading to a boycott from PETA and the American Humane Association withholding their “No Animals Were Harmed” stamp of approval.)

To make a long story short, Keda is grievously wounded in the bison hunt and left for dead by his tribe. Yet Keda miraculously survives and begins his long journey home with a busted foot. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Keda is set upon by a pack of wolves, and he’s lucky enough to wound one. Unable to kill the creature in cold blood, Keda nurses the wolf (later named Alpha, of course) back to health.

At this point, it bears remembering that this is literally the first time in history that this has ever happened. Neither man nor dog has any idea of what a mutually beneficial relationship between two species could possibly look like. In fact, dogs as we know them don’t even exist yet — this is a goddamn feral beast we’re talking about here.

So while this is marketed as a typical “boy and his dog” story, and we do eventually get there as the plot unfolds, the second act starts out as something more like Life of Pi: A boy and a savage animal, both alone and struggling for survival, somehow keeping each other alive by keeping each other on their guard at all times. It’s really quite compelling. What makes it even better is in the subtle comic relief we get when Keda and his new friend unknowingly invent the muzzle, the water bowl, tug-of-war, fetch, etc.

Of course, what really powers this central relationship is in how the two come to help each other. Keda may be resourceful, with a natural skill at crafting and using tools, but he’s not very good at actually hunting. Alpha helps him with that, while also giving Keda some experience in what it’s like to care for and protect those closest to him (like the tribe he’s going to lead someday, for example). And of course the two need each other for companionship, to say nothing of the shared body heat that comes in really handy when winter sets in. The two help each other to grow and survive in some neatly satisfying ways.

From start to finish, it’s made absolutely clear that this is a survival movie. But where other recent survival movies like The Grey or The Revenant are content to introduce man’s primal nature as subtext, this movie makes the text as plainly obvious as possible by way of prehistoric humans who really were little more than animals. More importantly, the man/dog relationship gives this movie a strong beating heart that the other two movies didn’t have. Granted, this PG-13 movie never goes to the R-rated extent of the other two, and it’s a shame to see the filmmakers’ verisimilitude held back in a few key moments.

But if I take away any points for the filmmakers’ cutting away at the most brutal moments, I have to give them right back for the visuals as a whole. I’m so deeply sorry I never took the chance to see this in IMAX, because every last frame of this movie is staggering. The landscapes are breathtaking, the CGI animals look wonderfully convincing, and even the more abstract shots are jaw-dropping in their creativity. Because the dialogue is subtitled and sparse, and one half of the central relationship can’t talk at all, this is a movie that depends heavily on visual storytelling, and the filmmakers deliver with a bullet.

Of course a huge part of that is due to Kodi Smit-McPhee, who makes the absolute most of this vehicle for his acting talent. But the real star here is Albert Hughes, late of the Hughes Brothers filmmaking pair. I seriously couldn’t believe that this was the same guy who co-directed From Hell and Book of Eli. Sorry, but if this is what Albert Hughes can do on his own, I sincerely hope that he leaves his twin brother behind for a good long time.

So are there problems? Absolutely, and many of them are inherent in the premise. For example, if you’re looking for nuanced characters with complex development arcs, you’re not going to find them in a movie about neanderthals. That’s just how it is. This is a simpler time with simpler people, and so we’re going to have simple characters and a simple plot. There’s no avoiding that.

Moreover, one assumes that the process of domesticating dogs would take several generations of selective breeding over potentially hundreds of years, and there’s no way it could have gone anywhere near as smoothly as it does in the film. But we’ve only got a runtime of 96 minutes. Put it all together and we’ve got a rushed plot that glides on rails, with no surprises whatsoever.

Ultimately, Alpha gets by on passion and execution. The gobsmacking visuals go a long fucking way toward redeeming this movie, and there is a healthy beating heart in Keda’s development arc and the central man/dog relationship. Also, while the commitment to authenticity is hardly spotless, I admire how far the filmmakers were willing and able to go in their portrayal of prehistoric humans fighting for survival back when a shovel would’ve been the stuff of science fiction.

With all of that said, it’s hard to get around the simplicity that’s hard-wired into the premise. There’s no getting around the fact that the characters and the plot have been worn so thin that they could literally be found on cave paintings. It takes a hell of a gimmick to make this boilerplate stuff seem fresh, and “the tale of the first domesticated dog” isn’t enough to cut it when the plot has been so aggressively shoehorned into 96 minutes and a three-act structure.

Even so, I’m glad that I got the chance to see this on the big screen. If you’re able to see it now or at a second-run theater, when the prices are lower than they might have been at opening, I definitely recommend giving it a look.

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