I saw the movie Alpha with my wife and her parents in Mexico last night (writing this on Wednesday–I love watching movies in Monterrey by the way–the seats are cheaper and the theater is cleaner and newer than watching the same film anywhere I know of in the USA). (Yes, obviously that means I’m in Mexico right now. 🙂 ) It’s not a movie I would have picked for myself–I generally find movies featuring dogs more than a bit corny. Note that Alpha is a piece of pre-historic fiction dramatizing the supposed first domestication of a wolf into a dog. Fantasy-esque is an awkward Frankenword (ahem), but I think it really describes the film. The movie is not in the fantasy genre, but a number of things about it feel like a fantasy, so I think quite a number of Speculative Faith readers would really enjoy this film–hence why I’m giving it my recommendation here. And explaining it a bit.
By the way, some general SPOILERS for the film follow. I won’t give away much pertinent to the plot, but I will mention some specific movie details. So if you had already planned to watch it and don’t want to hear anything about it, stop reading. If on the other hand, you are indifferent to the idea of the movie or even disinterested, keep reading–some things I share here might change your mind about Alpha.
Also by the way, Travis Chapman and I have actually figured out a process on how to proceed with posts. So next week we will launch into our joint series that will serve as a Speculative Fiction Writers’ Guide to Warfare. We’ll sum up our process and what we plan to cover next week, Dios mediante.
So why does Alpha feel like a fantasy? First there’s a terrible beast that stalks humans in the darkness. That the beast is a saber-tooth cat does not diminish the sense of horror and a feeling of “this beast is unlike anything from the world we know.”
And the movie has other strange beasts that attack, both day and night–stone age hyenas. And while hyenas don’t seem that surreal when set in Africa, I got a definite sense of the surreal as hyenas ran through snow–because of course, in our world, hyenas don’t live anywhere near snow. But during the Ice Age, the range of the Cave Hyena went across cold climate areas of Europe and Asia.
And for lack of a better word, the landscape is the movie is epic. Like the backdrop of an epic fantasy film in harshness and barrenness, the sites the film producers picked in British Columbia, Alberta, and Iceland, give a strong sense of being in another world. Add to that the way the night sky is shown to shine in majestic brightness and the way the film shows such “ordinary” things as the motion of the sun and the moon and I was left with a very strong sense that the film portrays the pre-historic world in a way that admirers of fantasy could fall in love with.
And the culture! There’s something of course familiar about cavemen scaring bison off a cliff, but the culture of these Cro-magnons shows them to be fully human in a very sophisticated way. They have tattoos, read the stars, know basics of medicine, wear sewn clothing and bone jewelry, braid their hair, cut their hair, shave, and work hard to master the skills of making fires and chipping razor-sharp stone tools. They leave piles of rocks to mark hunting grounds, build shelters, believe their ancestors bless them, leave stacks of rocks to help the dead find their way to the ancestors, have rites of initiation and ordinary emotional aspects of pride in relatives, love for one another, and fear during danger.
The human characters are like us but not like us, which is something the best of speculative fiction delivers. And note that the producers chose to do some things that I think Young Earth Creationists especially will appreciate–oh, the overtly stated setting of 20,000 years ago Creationists won’t like. But imagine the producers got the year wrong, and you’ll see very little sense that human beings have evolved in this movie. The culture and technology of the people of this film is radically different from us, but these are humans, fully human. And the cast, which is a mixture of Northern European actors, Latinos, and people of East Asian descent, shows people with dark hair, dark eyes, and high cheekbones, but in other ways with radically different appearances, as if belonging to a proto-race from which all other human races would eventually spring–which is a Young Earth Creationist idea of what early humans were like.
And lest someone complain that making cave men and women too sophisticated is just the movie makers importing modern culture into the past, please recall that Otzi the iceman found in the Alps some years back, though from a later time period than the setting of Alpha, surprised researchers with how sophisticated and well-crafted his personal items were. (And Otzi had tattoos.) Seeing cavemen and women as sophisticated actually follows along perfectly with what science knows about Stone Age people.
So I love this movie’s story world–I love its world building. It’s truly fantasy-eque, for lack of a better word. I also loved the cinematography, also fantasy-esque, which is what’s responsible for producing a truly unexpected and at times surreal sky and natural surroundings.
I didn’t love the plot as much. To sum up the plot in a way that minimizes spoilers (but still gives away a tiny bit), a boy who has just been accepted as a man goes out on his first hunt with the tribe led by his father. Something goes wrong and he is left for dead. He has to work to save himself and survive while a broken bone mends–and in the meantime, winds up saving the life of a wolf, who later becomes personally loyal to him in a way that obviously leads to the domestication of dogs.
From that set-up you should already realize up front that both the boy and the wolf survive, or else there were be no future implied about dogs. Them surviving is fine, but there were times the movie tried to make you wonder if they would make it, but I never wondered, based on the story set-up.
I’ve already mentioned that I think stories featuring dogs are often corny, but this one wasn’t very much. It did have some cute moments (or even “cutesy”) in which things happened that were not very likely. One example–the young man throws a stick at the wolf to get it to go away from him and the wolf snatches the stick from the ground and runs in back to him. That the dude has no idea what to do next, instead of deciding to play catch with the wolf, is what keeps that point of the story from getting too cutesy.
I did my own fair share of walking around in icy wilderness as a kid in Montana and I saw some things in the story that didn’t ring true to me. “Why isn’t he covering his face right now?” “Why is he always walking upwind–shouldn’t he at least tack back and forth a bit?” “Why did that guy freeze to death outside his tent (it’s much more like he’d freeze to death trying to stay warm inside it)?” “How come there’s always dry wood to light a fire (even during a snowstorm)?” “Why would you run out onto the surface of a frozen lake if you had no idea how thick the ice was (I wouldn’t)?”
And there’s some other moments I could mention that I won’t. I guess we could say that having a bit of surreal in the setting I like, but surreal plot elements I don’t.
But none of the plot things kept me from liking the movie–though they did make me see it as less than perfect. I would give this movie a B plus overall, or 4 out of 5 stars, or 8.5 out of ten. Oh, by the way, it’s also a clean movie, no swearing or nudity, limited violence, though some animals are portrayed getting killed (PETA has protested this aspect of the film, of course), and the story also contains some “peril” and relatively mild depictions of trauma.
But in spite of my caveats, I broadly recommend this movie, especially to fans of fantasy. Though supposedly a realistic story set in pre-history, it indeed is fantasy-esque. And worth the price of a movie ticket for the cinematography alone.