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Movie Review

Humans and dogs go together like Kibbles 'n Bits.

Sorry, cat lovers: When was the last time your ol' tabby flushed game for you or barked at burglars or even chased a stick? Nope, there's a reason why dogs are called "man's best friend," and we see that friendship demonstrated time and again in our favoritest animal stories—from Call of the Wild to Old Yeller and on and on.

But it's not like Irish setters or Labradoodles sprang out fully formed on the fifth day of creation, their tails a-wagging and ready for Adam to invent the tennis ball. No, the first boy-and-his-dog story may have been a dicey thing. Domesticating an aggressive, fang-sporting carnivore is no easy matter.

Too bad for Keda. He could use some help.

Life during the ice age is no romp in the prehistoric park, even under the best of circumstances, and Keda's current ones are far from ideal. On the cusp of manhood and participating in his first Great Hunt with his small tribe—led by his strong, wise father, Tau—Keda's attacked and tossed off a cliff by a prehistoric bison. He lands on a precarious ledge, looking pretty dead. But there's no way to know for sure, since neither ropes nor ladders have been invented just yet. So a grieving Tau and the rest of his tribe eventually turn toward home without the boy, leaving a memorial stone to honor their lost loved one.

But Keda's not dead yet. He wakes up (thanks to a little help from a very surprised and short-lived vulture) and falls off the cliff into a well-timed gully washer far below. Still, his trials are far from over. He's alone and a long way from home. He's never started a fire before. He's cold and hungry and his ankle is severely sprained, maybe broken. And winter's in the air.

Worse, Keda's surrounded by wild animals. And they're growing evermore curious about the limping biped in their midst. Keda knows that when it comes to wild animals, curiosity often leads to hunger. Why, there's a pack of wolves growling, salivating and circling him even now.

Cold, pain, hunger … they're all pretty bad. But right now, the wolves are Keda's worst enemy.

This man-to-be could sure use a best friend.

Positive Elements

Keda scrambles up a tree in that initial showdown with the wolves, injuring one of them in the melee. And when the rest of the pack loses interest in Keda and lopes off, the injured wolf is left behind—apparently to die. Not unlike Keda himself, actually.

It's an inauspicious beginning to the domestication process, but it seems to work. Keda, after considering killing the animal, decides to nurse it back to health instead. Slowly the two forge a wary alliance, then a friendship, as they plow through the wilderness together.

Both show a willingness to sacrifice for each other, though arguably the wolf, which Keda names Alpha, offers up the greater share. Alpha leaves the pack to follow Keda into what must be a very strange new existence, risking its life repeatedly for its new master.

But Alpha isn't Keda's only friend in the film. Before he and his father are separated, Tau also imparts some worthy life lessons to his boy. He encourages Keda to be patient and to never give up when he struggles to start a fire. When Keda's unwilling to dispatch a wild boar during the hunt, Tau reprimands him: "You take a life to give life to your tribe," he says. "Life is for the strong—it is earned, not given."

One night on the hunt, the two of them see a wolf pack in the distance. Tau points to the alpha male, explaining that the lead animal must be strong and brave for the sake of the pack. He also reminds Keda that no wolf is born into the role of being the alpha: "He earned it with his courage and his heart." Obviously, he's hinting that that's what human leaders must do, too. And if Keda aims to take his father's place one day, he'll need to earn that leadership mantle as well.

Tau is somewhat frustrated with Keda's awkwardness on the boy's first hunt. But he loves his son deeply and has confidence he'll find his way. Before the hunt, Keda's mother frets over his safety, believing he's just not ready. "He leads with his heart, not with his spear," she says. Tau insists that the lad is strong, "stronger than even he knows."

Spiritual Content

Alpha takes place, we're told, 20,000 years ago—long before Jesus or Moses or even Abraham were around to instill a good, solid background in Judeo-Christian faith.

But Keda and his clan are nevertheless religious, with their beliefs pinned to a form of ancestor worship, it seems. We hear a great deal about how the spirits of deceased ancestors watch over the steps of the living. And when Tau believes his boy to be dead, the chief of another friendly tribe (who lost a son, too) tries to comfort Tau by telling him that their sons now "walk together in the other world."

We also hear an invocation for the spirits to "guide and protect our people." A female shaman guides her tribe's faith. And newcomers to the Great Hunt take part in a religious ceremony, wherein the boys' faces are marked with what appears to be blood.

Sexual Content

None, unless you count Keda's nearly-naked swim. (His loins are covered with an underwear-like accoutrement).

Violent Content

The film opens with Keda, Tau and other men hunting a small herd of ancient bison. They essentially drive the animals off a cliff, and we see dozens fall to their deaths (sometimes hitting rocks and ledges on their way down.) We later see their corpses as the hunters butcher them and pack the meat.

Not all of the animals plunge immediately down into the abyss, though. One large bull turns around and chases Keda, eventually knocking him into the air. It then hooks part of his clothing in its horns before barreling back toward the cliff face. Hunters spear the bison, and the injured animal flings up his head before he falls, sending Keda hurtling off the cliff.

Keda manages to hang on to a rock instead of tumbling to the valley floor below, but loses his grip, painfully bounces off a few jutting stones and finally lands on a ledge, bloody and unconscious. Later, a vulture bites Keda's lip, awakening the boy. He smashes the bird against the cliff face, killing it.

Death is very much a fact of life for both animals and people in this story. Everyone knows that some men won't survive the hunt. Indeed, one teen—a newcomer, like Keda—is snatched by a saber-toothed cat and apparently killed offscreen. (The entire attack takes place in shadows, but it's pretty jarring nonetheless.) Keda and Alpha hunt and kill boar, rabbits and fish. They snack on live maggots, too. (Keda also puts a few of them on a wound Alpha has suffered, in order to clean it.) Keda eats a live earthworm as well. Earlier in the film, he refuses to kill an injured boar when he's hunting with his tribe, forcing someone else to do it.

Both Keda and Alpha suffer bloody wounds, and Keda sometimes spits blood out of his mouth. We see bloodstains on snow. A frozen corpse of a man still sits outside his hut, and the tribe passes the partially-eaten remains of a mammoth. (Later, the mammoth is completely skeletonized.) Keda shoots and kills something with a bow and arrow. After they carve suitable spear points (one of which slices Tau's thumb), the successful hunt initiates are beaten mightily by their peers as part of the initiation ceremony. "Pain will journey with us," Tau intones before the beating takes place.

Crude or Profane Language

None.

Drug and Alcohol Content

None.

Other Negative Elements

Hunters come across the dung of prehistoric bison. One of the men takes a big clump of it in his hand, then squishes and smells it before he and the rest of his crew take to smearing that scat all over their faces and bodies (presumably to mask their own scent as they hunt).

During the hunt, one participant eats large ants crawling on his arm. As mentioned, live worms and maggots are devoured, too. Keda retches, both from sickness and from near-starvation (after he's gone without food for a while). He complains (at different times) about how much both his father and his wolf stink.

Conclusion

When I was a kid, every year or two a movie studio would trot out a relatively innocent animal-adventure story. Two kids and their dog brave the wilds of Alaska. Two dogs and a cat take an incredible, 3,000-mile journey. A stranded family adopts a bear.

I loved those films. I mean, what kid wouldn't want to adopt a bear? Or, for that matter, a wolf?

Alpha is set in a time far removed from these more contemporary adventures, but it still reminded me of those old-timey, fun, mostly forgotten flicks … up to a point. Yes, the adventure is here, and the main characters display plenty of courage, gumption and love amid deeply trying circumstances. The camaraderie between "owner" and animal feels both heartwarming and inspiring. And Alpha, like many of those family movies gone by, delivers strong messages about familial love—and what it takes to grow up.

But our own time is far removed from those more innocent days. And the time in which this movie is set is a far harsher, more brutal one. The peril we feel in Alpha seems more perilous, the atmosphere bleaker and colder. Death is an inescapable reality, and we see plenty of it. Even though most of that death is simply the successful conclusion of a hunt, and the actual death blows aren't necessarily always shown, young animal lovers may find some of the footage difficult to watch. (Some of the spiritual elements of the movie may give parents a bit of pause, as well.)

Alpha spoons us a strangely old-fashioned story told about an ancient age, and some of what it offers is pretty edifying, even tasty. But because of the accompanying gristle, you might want to think twice before you and your family wolf this one down.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Kodi Smit-McPhee as Keda; Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson as Tau (Keda's father); Natassia Malthe as Rho (Keda's mother); Leonor Varela as the Shaman;; Jens Hultén as Xi

Director

Albert Hughes ( )

Distributor

Sony Pictures

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

August 17, 2018

On Video

November 13, 2018

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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