Alpha is essentially a Jack London tale for the 21st century, which come to think of it is a great idea. It's the story of a teenage boy in Stone Age times ('Europe, 20,000 years ago' announces the caption at the beginning) called Keda.
Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the son of his tribe's chief and as the movie opens he's setting out with a party of men on his first hunt. This section of the film was the least appealing to me because it involves, not surprisingly, lots of killing of animals — admittedly, entirely computer-generated animals, but still... (To his credit, Keda flinches from the bloodshed, too.)
I am of course a total sentimental softy when it comes to animals. Which indeed was why I'd hastened to see Alpha in the first place. Because it's about how the domestication of the first wolf came about — boy meets dog!
Keda is separated from the hunting party and is left behind injured, presumed dead. He has a long and arduous odyssey to get back home by himself — although as it turns out he won't be by himself, because along the way he befriends a wounded wolf.
The story of the gradually growing bond between Keda and his furry companion, and their battle against other animals, and the elements, on the long voyage home makes for an engrossing and moving adventure.
In a such a CGI-heavy movie I wasn't even sure if the dog was real — but he absolutely is. His names is Chuck and he's a Czech wolf dog (that's actually a breed) from France.
Chuck is an absolutely lovely dog — you have to realise this is coming from a cat lover! — and a tremendous asset to the film. Which makes it all the more absurd that the clowns at IMDB don't even mention him in their allegedly complete cast and crew for the film.
The movie is beautifully shot, by the Austrian cinematographer Martin Gschlacht on location in Vancouver and Iceland. It was written by Daniele Wiedenhaupt from an initial draft by Albert Hughes, who directed the film.
Hughes has previously worked in collaboration with his brother Allen, on movies such as Dead Presidents, From Hell and The Book of Eli. This is Wiedenhaupt's screenwriting debut.
I enjoyed Alpha a lot, but I do have a couple of gripes. The dialogue in the movie is all in a made up prehistoric language, with subtitles. I don't like subtitles — they mean that your eyes are always in the wrong place on the screen. I'm willing to tolerate them for a genuine foreign language film, just about. To use them because you've opted for an imaginary language is just a pointless nuisance.
Just shoot the damned thing in English. Or, as my brother suggested, having established their point with subtitles, the movie makers could then have quickly segued into English dialogue.
But the subtitles and the silly language don't spoil the enjoyment. Alpha is a pleasurable epic and it only really puts a foot — or paw — wrong at the very end when the final, triumphant shots are accompanied by some saccharine narration by Morgan Freeman.
Now Freeman is a fine actor, but he has become the apotheosis of the unctuous, sentimental and unnecessary voice over. I now cringe whenever I hear him dubbed over a movie to tell me how I should be feeling.
Luckily he only had a sentence or two here, so that didn't manage to spoil the film.
Anyway, I liked the movie enough to see it again a few days later, this time in Imax 3D.
Incidentally the three-dimensional Imax image is superb — the best I've ever seen, precise, entirely stable and sharp, although the glasses provided are crap: uncomfortable, with distracting reflections in the bottom corners of the lenses. But I digress...
A couple of hours after I saw the Imax screening, something hit me...
There hadn't been any Morgan Freeman voice-over at the end. It had been removed from that print. This caused me to do a little research on line.
It turns out that the movie was made with narration by Freeman at the beginning and the end. And that's the version that's being shown in the States.
But here in the UK, at least, the voice-over has been removed either partially or entirely.
Someone made a very smart decision about this. My tail is wagging with approval.
(Image credits: a true wealth of posters, some very beautiful, and mostly aimed at the Far East markets, from Imp Awards.)