Alpha: An Implausible Survival Tale

A young hunter must survive on the Mammoth steppe with the help of a wolf during the Upper Paleolithic period in Alpha (2018), written by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt and directed by Albert Hughes. Hughes is known for films like From Hell and The Book of Eli, but this was Wiedenhaupt’s first produced screenplay. She did a bang up job adapting Hughes’ original story for the screen. Despite stunning visuals and cinematography, and some interesting attempts to reconstruct Paleolithic culture, however, Alpha mainly pulls on moviegoers’ heartstrings with a completely implausible story.

Tribal chieftain Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) is proud that his son Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has proven himself worthy to accompany them on their annual buffalo hunt, but his wife Rho (Natassia Malthe) is apprehensive. On their long journey to the hunting grounds, they encounter another group of hunters led by Xi (Jens Hultén), and they join forces. Keda is skilled, but impatient and hesitant to kill. Tau instructs him on the need for strength, a lesson Keda will learn the hard way over the coming months as he fights for survival.

While his fellow hunters are stampeding a bison herd off a cliff (an actual hunter-gatherer tactic), a bison tramples Keda, impales him, and hurls him off the edge, where he plunges over 100 yards, suffers multiple broken bones and massive internal hemorrhaging, and dies. Wait, the bison’s horn only snags his coat and he lands safely on a ledge suffering only an injured ankle? Then a flash flood miraculously arrives in the nick of time, providing him a soft place to land when he slips from the rocks? And he doesn’t just drown in the current? … really?

In order to have tension in a survival story, we must think (despite knowing otherwise) there’s a possibility the main character won’t survive, but this improbable scenario plants in the viewer’s mind the idea that the main character literally cannot be killed. All tension evaporates when the hand of God (the screenwriter) comes down and saves Keda from one impossible-to-survive situation after another.

And it’s all unnecessary. Keda could have been separated from the hunting party because he got lost at night, or his father kicked him out after a disagreement, or the flash flood swept him far downstream while he was helping to carve up the bison carcasses. Literally any other inciting incident would have been more plausible than the one they chose.

After Keda mends his broken ankle, a pack of prehistoric wolves chases him up a tree, but not before he wounds one. Rather than kill the injured predator, Keda has sympathy for it and decides to tend to its wound. Gradually, Keda establishes dominance, names it Alpha, and the two form a bond on his long journey home. This human-canine companionship is at times heartfelt and touching, and I can see why audiences responded favorably to it.

As the simple story of a hero’s journey, Alpha shares structural similarities with the 2017 Western Hostiles. In both films, bitter enemies travel a long distance together, overcoming hardship and learning mutual trust and respect along the way. But Hostiles is grounded in a brutal, realistic world. We witness the characters experience deep personal loss, reflect on past mistakes, and through the sudden deaths of their companions are reminded of what could happen if they make one wrong move.

In contrast, Keda and Alpha escape the clutches of death with ease. In one scene, they escape a pack of hyenas by hiding in a cave, only to encounter a large cat, which mauls Alpha before Keda kills it with a single arrow he just happened to find in an abandoned hut. Phew, it’s a good thing the screenwriter put it there for him to find or they would’ve been screwed!

Keda’s infinite supply of firewood is another example of this. Despite walking for days across open grassland and tundra without a tree in sight, Keda somehow has enough wood to make a warm fire every night, even after falling into an icy lake and losing all his supplies. How lucky!

As long as you don’t think too much about it, Alpha is an enjoyable film. Critic Odie Henderson put it best when he wrote, “There are … moments where faith and suspension of disbelief are the only things that will carry you through, but the pacing is swift enough to ward off too much contemplation.” Audiences will love the main character’s interaction with a prehistoric wolf that acts like a modern domesticated dog (even playing fetch and tugging on a scarf), but don’t mistake this fantastical story for history.

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