Alpha–“Fantasy-esque” Pre-historic Fiction

The movie Alpha shows the pre-historic past in a way that reminds me of elements I like from fantasy fiction. I explain why–and broadly recommend this movie.
on Sep 6, 2018 · 6 comments

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.

Howling at the starry night.

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.

Sophisticated cavemen in mourning.

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.




Travis Perry is a hard-core Bible user, history, science, and foreign language geek, hard science fiction and epic fantasy fan, publishes multiple genres of speculative fiction at Bear Publications, is an Army Reserve officer with five combat zone deployments. He also once cosplayed as dark matter.
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  1. notleia says:

    Welp, more romantic than proto-dogs digging through the trash pits, which is the more likely way dogs were domesticated.

    Now I’m going to fall down the google hole about Otzi’s clothing, so see how it lines up with what I’ve already read about the history of textiles.

    • Travis Perry says:

      I wonder if your comment on the most likely way dogs were domesticated is based on archaeological finds of canine poo in human trash pits–or dog teeth marks on bones first cut by human stone tools.

      If that’s where the idea comes from, I think a bit of skepticism is in order–just a bit. Sure, humans could have adopted wolves after they were just hanging around the trash. However, wild dogs hang around human trash in Afghanistan (and other places in the Islamic World, where a cultural inhibition keeps them from making pets out of the dogs) and the humans just ignore them–so the dogs are feral. Note that these are descendants of dogs domesticated elsewhere in the world and so should be really easy to get along with–but they generally aren’t too friendly. (Yes, I saw dogs like this myself, in person, especially when I was in Afghanistan.)

      To get along with humans well, canines do much better when raised with humans from the time they were puppies. In fact, wolf pups raised with humans are reasonably tame from what I hear from people who’ve done that. So probably at some point, a human being adopted stray wolf puppies at the very beginning of the domestication of dogs. Which is not how Alpha shows it, but oh well…

      Hope you enjoyed your reading on Otzi’s clothes. Pretty interesting stuff.

      • notleia says:

        I think the trash theory is a small but not unimportant part, if only because it increased access to the animals. Cats weren’t domesticated (or rather, they didn’t domesticate themselves) until the invention of agriculture and excess grains that attracted vermin that had them colonizing near humans. I also have a hypothesis that it was kids who did most of the work of domestication, and they wouldn’t have gone out far in order to gain wolf pups.

        There was also that Russian breeding experiment with fur-bearing foxes, where they bred for ease of handling and also got a lot of dog-like traits like spots and floppy ears.

  2. As someone who likes prehistoric fantasy and stories where animals are important to the plot, your take on this is pretty interesting. TBH, I lean more toward Old Earth Creationism now days, and have loved prehistoric documentaries even when I was a kid, so that part wouldn’t bother me at all.

    That said, I dunno. If my family rents the movie from Redbox later I’ll probably see it, but half of me would be looking forward to the show, while the other half would anticipate it being cheesy. I guess I feel kind of pessimistic when it comes to mainstream live action movies these days.

    I agree that the more ‘cutesy’ stuff you mentioned sounds cringeworthy, since it’s painfully obvious that it doesn’t line up with wolf behavior or even dog behavior. I really don’t mind animal behavior being stylized when it makes sense or makes the story cool, but the stylization you mentioned doesn’t seem all that great to me. I could sort of buy the behavior you mentioned if the wolf already had a human ‘owner’ in the past, but I doubt that much backstory was put into this film, so it just sounds like the stereotypical Hollywood thing to add to endear the wolf to the audience.

    Thinking back to when my dog was a puppy, he didn’t innately know how to play fetch. I basically had to approach him, snatch his toy, and throw it over and over again until he learned it was a game. THEN he would actually start bringing his toy over for me to throw. But, well, wolves are another story. They are very food aggressive, for instance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that transferred over to anything they were carrying. If some random creature tried to take something from it, the wolf would probably bite.

    • Travis Perry says:

      For me, the primary justification in seeing a movie in the theater as opposed to Redbox is if the cinematography is really nice and your home viewing experience cannot deliver that. I would say, for myself, that Alpha’s cinematography justified a theater seat (though note the seat I paid for in Mexico cost less than half US ticket price).

      As for the cutesy stuff, I thought Alpha was only minimally cutesy. Which was nice, because most movies featuring canines are cutesy! cutesy! cutesy!

      As I mentioned in my review, I had more problem with story situations that don’t quite make sense. Yes, some of those related to the wolf/dog. But mostly revolved around other issues.

      • The cutesy thing is probably one of my pet peeves with the more mainstream movies. I’m kinda used to the more serious animal stories I read throughout my childhood, so it’s kind of annoying to see how modern animal stories are treated. That’s kind of why I appreciate things like the rebooted version of Kay Fedewa’s Blackblood Alliance. She did a cute little short story thing for it when she was testing out colors and art style, but now that she’s moved on to drawing the main story, it’s far more serious. (It takes place in prehistoric times, too, which is fun.) Off White and Wolf’s Rain are also more serious wolf stories.

        And yeah, the things you mentioned make sense, too. Kind of sounds like it was put together by people that were either in a hurry, or that had little experience with snowy climates. Speaking from experience, it’s pretty easy to miss certain details about snowy climates after living in a more arid region for most of one’s life.

        The domestication of dogs thing kind of reminds me of a book I read as a kid. (Fire-hunter by Jim Kjelgaard, I think). That story kind of had an interesting take on how those particular cave people acquired/used the wolves(I think they were wolves, anyway). Some of the animal behavior still struck me as odd and a bit convenient, but at the time at least I still thought the book was fun.

What do you think?