20,000 years ago during the last ice age, Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, "Atomic Blonde") was the chief of a Cro-Magnon Solutrean tribe, known for their tool making and complex social hierarchies. When his seventeen year-old son Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee, "The Road") makes an expert stone spearhead, Tau decides he's ready to the annual hunt. Keda is different in nature from his dad, though, and when things go awry he's left for dead and must fight for survival alongside the wolf he names "Alpha."
Laura's Review: B
Considering that this movie was originally slated to open a year ago, one would suspect problems behind the scenes. But whatever caused two six month bumps in release date isn't apparent on what has finally made it to the big screen (see this one in IMAX 3D if you can, it's worth it). Cowriter (with Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt)/director Albert Hughes ("From Hell," "The Book of Eli") has made a stunning looking film (cinematography by "Goodnight Mommy's" Martin Gschlacht) that is both a harsh survival tale and educated conjecture on man's domestication of the dog. Just because these people are Cro-Magnons, do not expect to see knuckle dragging cavemen. The Solutreans, who lived in what is now southern France and Spain, were a sophisticated society who sewed clothes from animal hides, wore and bartered jewelry and groomed their hair. The filmmakers have gone so far as to create a facsimile of what might have been their language based on exhaustive research. Tau's small family unit is fiercely protective of each other, Keda's mother Rho (Natassia Malthe) extremely reluctant to send her son off with the seasoned hunters (her words, that he 'leads with his heart, not his spear' will prove prescient). The danger of the journey first becomes apparent when Tau's tribe runs into another, fiercely painted one. This turns out to be led by Xi (Jens Hultén), a friend of Tau's who will hunt alongside him. When Xi meets Keda, we learn Xi has already lost his own son. The men travel untold miles across varying terrains, guided by rock formations made by their ancestors and the stars they have tattooed on their arms. But when a wild boar is caught for their dinner and Tau asks his son to finish it off, Keda looks into the beast's eyes and cannot do it. Keda is also gently scolded when he becomes impatient trying to start a fire using friction. But it is Keda's compassion for other creatures that will serve him well when, after being hoisted over a cliff on the horns of a bison they are hunting, the tribe believe him to be dead. Awakening on the outcrop no one could reach, Keda first calls for the father who is long gone before attempting to scale down the cliff face, eventually dropping into roiling storm waters below. When he comes to the second time, he must bind a severely sprained ankle before beginning a hobbling journey in a race with encroaching winter. Before long, he's attacked by a wolf pack, but manages to scramble into a tree. Coming down the next day, he moves to put the one injured, whimpering wolf left behind (Chuck the Czech wolf dog) out of its misery, but once again, he cannot kill. He tends to the wary animal's wound, shares food, drink and shelter. Hughes and his young star work hard for realism, the tale never overtly sentimental (a surprise at film's end initially may strike some as just that, but in thinking about Hughes' theme, it is a necessary development and is foreshadowed). The wolf Keda names Alpha is always a wild animal, their relationship growing organically through pack instinct for survival. There is guarded respect well before there is love as the two face predators, storms and starvation. Smit-McPhee may not be the hardened hunter his father is (although Jóhannesson's love of his family is evident), but he shows a keen resolve, the young actor maturing before us in both body and spirit as the film progresses. Visual effects are mostly seamless, leaving us to marvel at the sight of an eagle swooping down in front of us to snag a fish or that bird's eye view of the endless land separating Keda from his home. The film's final image is a stunning, masterful wrapup. A few years back, Sony released Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Wolf Totem," which could be a companion piece to this. It disappeared quickly. Hopefully "Alpha" will not suffer the same fate. Grade: