Over the years, the evidence continues to mount that Alan Moore placed a curse on the Hughes Brothers — Allen and Albert — after they adapted his seminal comic From Hell into an unrecognizable Johnny Depp vehicle back in 2001. The latest clue comes via the solo debut of Albert, the prehistoric survival drama Alpha, which was originally supposed to be released in December of last year but got pushed to Hot January because of fears about its quality. It had a troubled production, cost $80 million, and PETA’s currently boycotting it, so you know, they’re not expecting to set the world on fire with this one, and it seems that Hughes followed suit. This is about as lifeless as you can get while maintaining a general mediocrity about an entire film, and it is about as disappointing as you might imagine.
Alpha’s got a germ of a great idea in it, in that explores the bond between dog (or, rather, wolf) and man at its earliest moment: 20,000 years ago in the mountains and rolling plains of Europe. A young tribesman named Keda (The Road‘s Kodi Smit-McPhee) is brought on the annual bison hunt by his father (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), where the assembled warriors of two tribes somehow manage to convince an entire herd of these animals to fall off of a cliff and scavenge their corpses from there. An accident happens thanks to Keda’s reluctance to kill one of the damn things (a modern plot contrivance, given the lack of connection between a wild animal and a caveman at that point), and the young man is thrown off the side of the cliff. His tribe leaves him for dead, as there’s no way to get to where he fell, and Keda eventually is forced to try and make his way back to them alone. Well, that is until he’s attacked by a pack of wolves and, before he climbs into a tree to wait out the assault, manages to wound one of the canines.
These scenes between Keda and the wolf, whom he names Alpha (duh), are the film’s best because they’re full of some sort of life. Smit-McPhee spends much of the first half either at the receiving end of a speech from his chieftain father or pretending to be scared while various grips shove tennis balls in his face before he meets the wolf, and his performance really begins to open up once the two are hiding out in a cave, wounded. Keda gives the wolf water — anxiously, hoping he won’t get bitten — and tends to the canine’s wounds (though his snout is tied shut) in a loving manner. The pair eases into a swell symbiotic relationship, even if there’s a lack of trust on the human’s part, and the wolf discovers he’s finally got an easy meal ticket and somebody to snuggle with when it’s cold outside.
Yes, it’s Old Yeller meets Hell in the Pacific, and I wish the movie were half as good as that logline suggests it would be. Still, I really can’t stress to you how well Chuck the wolf-dog, with the help of his handlers, performs here, and if there’s any true character to be found about the film, well, he’s got all of it. He’s the source of all of the humor and empathy, and he doesn’t even have to speak the artificial language that they made for the film. The actors must have been envious. Even a great animal actor and with our built-in abhorrence to cruelty towards pets on screen, it’s weird how little Hughes makes us care about the safety of either human or animal because there’s never a point in which their safety isn’t in doubt.
Perhaps it’s the lifelessness that suffocates every frame. Hughes and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht try their best to make the vistas sweeping and the action stunning, worthy of the IMAX presentation that I saw the film in, but a number of issues plague the visuals. For one, it’s color-graded to hell, slathered in that that goddamn blue-orange scheme that every blockbuster uses nowadays (which I guess makes sense for a film about the Ice Age) but something about it feels off and sloppy. The rolling hills of prehistoric Europe, shown constantly in CGI’d helicopter shots never amount to anything more than pleasant window dressing, though it is often pretty. The action is flat, with the occasional glimpse of Snyder-esque slow-ramped style (such as when Keda is thrown off of the cliff by the charging bison) breaking up the monotony. And despite all of the efforts from the doggo, it’s all just a very forgettable survival story wrapped up in stale blockbuster trappings.
Worst of all, the director’s glum take on the Upper Paleolithic doesn’t bring too much new to the table, especially compared to other films in the genre, Quest for Fire being chief amongst them. While it may be a “realistic” fable imagining in metaphorical terms how a gradual process occurred, I could have used a little imagination even if it meant Hughes breaking his stern commitment to tone. He’s dealing with a wild period in our history as a species, one where oddities and mysticism ran rampant in the mind as we tried to understand and survive in the world around us in new and, occasionally, very stupid ways. The closest we get to any of this is when Keda’s dad touches some bison dung to see how hot it is.
Vagueness hurts this kind of story, and if you’re not sure if there’s a historical basis for some detail, do what the cavemen themselves did: Make some shit up. Even Roland Emmerich, he of 10,000 BC fame, managed to characterize his tribesmen, not to mention the fact that he pulled in fucking Atlantis when things began to go stale for him plot-wise. When you’re being beat by him in a genre that isn’t “campy large-scale disaster,” that’s pretty bad! It’s not hard to imagine a version of this film that’s a little more fun and a little less dour, given that your thoughts upon leaving the theater will roughly resemble this comic, and I wish Alpha had capitalized on that.