“Alpha” isn’t just a shaggy dog story, but the first shaggy dog story — about the domestication of dogs in prehistoric Europe — so it’s too bad it doesn’t have a little more bite.
Some 20,000 years ago, the movie says, a tribe of hunters is preparing for the annual trek to bring down The Great Beast, a giant horned bison. It’s the first time Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the son of the tribe’s chief (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), is joining the men on the hunt, and he’s determined to make his father proud.
Keda’s first steps are faltering ones. For example, he can’t muster the courage to finish off a wounded boar. The chief is stern with his son, but is sure he will show he’s got the strength to hunt and eventually lead.
When the big day comes to hunt the Great Beast, Keda is thrown over a cliff by the bison. He falls halfway down, landing on a thin ledge, and the chief and his men reluctantly give him up for dead. Once they head for home, though, Keda awakens, and finds himself alone, away from home, and with a broken ankle.
Early on, Keda must scramble up a tree to avoid being devoured by a pack of wolves. He slashes one wolf with his stone dagger, and the others run away. Keda takes the injured wolf to a cave to nurse its wounds. He gives the animal water, and shares his campfire and what small prey he can catch. The relationship is uneasy at first, with the wolf growling when Keda gets too close, but soon a familiarity develops. Keda even gives the wolf a name: Alpha.
Director Albert Hughes, directing for the first time without his twin Allen (together they made “Menace II Society,” “Dead Presidents” and “The Book of Eli,” among others), creates stunning visuals of Keda and Alpha traversing the wilderness. He also takes a stylistic risk by having the characters speak not in English but a prehistoric indo-European language, with subtitles for the audience to read.
The weakness in “Alpha” comes from the script, by rookie writer Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt (adapting a story by Hughes), which is too thin and repetitive to stretch to feature length. There is a nice surprise at the end, but it’s a long slog to get there.
Opens Friday, August 17, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for some intense peril. Running time: 96 minutes.