When the Hughes brothers made a name for themselves 25 years ago with Menace II Society, they seemed to have abundant potential and a distinct path carved out for themselves, following up with less distinguished but thematically similar works like Dead Presidents and the offbeat documentary American Pimp. Then they started throwing hard curveballs, from massacring Alan Moore’s From Hell and putting Denzel Washington through his own box-office hell with the execrable Book of Eli. And yet, despite their tendency to defy easy categorization, when I saw the name “Albert Hughes” attached to Alpha — an Ice Age adventure epic about the domestication of dogs — I thought it must be referring to someone else. It’s not.
I mention all of this because Alpha is defined by a level of aesthetic ambition that I would never have expected from Hughes, whose prior work has veered haphazardly from gritty social realism to hyperstylized action spectacle. Alpha is such a surprising film precisely because it’s so unabashedly picturesque, playing something like an IMAX nature documentary with the rudiments of a narrative tacked on to keep its target audience — presumably prepubescent boys — suitably engaged through its relatively brief running time. It may be somewhat light on plot and character development, but its sweeping starlight vistas and snowcapped panoramas lean so heavily into cinematographic grandiosity that you’ll hardly notice.
That scant narrative follows a group of neolithic hunters along a route laid out by their ancestors to sacred hunting grounds, where a carefully orchestrated ambush will allow them to kill enough buffalo to feed their tribe throughout the harsh winter. Among them is Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a neophyte whose father, Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), the clan’s chieftain, may have taken him on his first hunt a little prematurely. When Keda is thrown over a cliff by a bison and left for dead, he makes an unlikely ally in the form of an injured wolf (Chuck, in a star-making screen debut), and the two must brave predatory megafauna and impossibly inclement weather to return to the boy’s village. It’s the story of canine domestication as if told by Jack London by way of Planet Earth, and it works far better than that description might imply.
If Hughes seems an unlikely director to helm an anthropological adventure movie for kids, it doesn’t show in the results. Though I can’t speak with any authority to the historical accuracy of the hunting strategies or tool-making behaviors displayed here, and the linguistic proxy invented by writer Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt to represent what might have been spoken 20,000 years ago is utterly unverifiable, that was never really the point here anyway. Hughes and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht have created a visually stunning crowd-pleaser, and while the script may be deficient when it comes to plot and plausibility, the film’s wolf-dog hybrid lead has the acting chops to carry the film and then some. In a summer overpopulated with superhero spectacles and quick-turn horror cheapies, Alpha is a welcome respite that stands out from the pack.