For well over a year now, ever since the first trailer for the first release date dropped, I have been curious about only one aspect of the thrice-delayed "caveboy-meets-wolf, caveboy-domesicates-the-first-dog" movie Alpha: would it be so unbelievably fucking bad that it would be a great camp classic, or would it merely be the kind of flimsy, mediocre adventure fare that comes out by the bushelful every year? Imagine my frustrated surprise that, in fact, Alpha turns out to be legitimately good - legitimately very good, even. I concede that stories about human proto-societies in the paleolithic era are rarely good (and almost all of the good ones are the flagrantly fantastic ones that pit cavemen against dinosaurs), and what I'm about to say is just about the lowest bar any movie could ever hope to clear, but I think this is probably the best movie in this genre that I've ever seen (with the caveat that I very definitely owe Quest for Fire a rewatch).

The film is set 20,000 years ago, in what will eventually be called Europe but is currently a wasteland of rocky hills periodically interrupted by the verdant areas right around rivers. In one such oasis lives a tribe of homo sapiens who are appealingly not modern at all: they look more or less white, but not really like modern white people, and they speak a (subtitled) language that I'm pretty sure is derived from more than one Native American culture, which gives it a distinct sound and rhythm that feels more expressive than the wholly invented languages in Quest for Fire and The Clan of the Cave Bear. But it sure as hell ain't Indo-European, and that lends just exactly the right amount of alienness to everything: this is very definitely a move that takes place somewhere else and in another time, and that commitment to non-modernity has happy ramifications for just about every aspect of the movie.

It's a pretty basic coming-of-age story: there's an adolescent boy named Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has just completed most of the rituals his tribe demands of fully-functioning adult males, much to the pleasure of his father (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), the tribe's chief. The only thing left is to take part in the annual bison hunt, several miles overland, in the waning days of autumn. We know from the film's opening scene that this will end badly, with Keda losing his nerve and getting run down by a huge animal that pushes him over the edge of a high cliff; the first act shows the week of journeying through the wild that gets him to that place, demonstrating along the way that he's probably not quite ready to be joining the hunt at all. The rest of the film finds him surviving as necessity demands, performing the difficult tasks alone and wounded that he couldn't handle win a group, and along the way befriending a wolf he manages to injure while its pack is attacking him.

This is almost certainly not good anthropology, though I am no expert on paleolithic European knowledge. Still, it's hard to believe that a young man who, hours earlier, had no clue how to hold a spear despite that being the one task he's been trained to do, would have both the wisdom and the wherewithal to re-set his own dislocated ankle. And he has an easier time taming and training Alpha (the translation of the name he gives to the dog) in the span of a month than most 21st Century humans would trying to teach the same behaviors to a domesticated dog. Hell, he creates the game of fetch by accident, which should trigger a bullshit alarm even if everything else in the movie somehow fails to.

On the other hand: who cares? Alpha is first and foremost a really smart, tightly-fitted adventure movie that is, for all its ridiculously high concept and its bestiary of CGI Pleistocene fauna, pretty simple and direct. It's an out-and-back thing, basically: watch Keda bumble his way into an accident at the end of the world, and then have to crawl his way back, learning how to survive as he goes. Director/scenarist Albert Hughes - working for the first time without his brother Allen - and screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt have done very little other than string together a chain of anecdotes held together with minimal dialogue and a clear problem/solution structure that makes every individual scene seem like the most incredibly important thing that Keda could ever possibly have to worry about. The film slowly cranks up the intensity of these trials as Keda grows more and more adept at facing them (when he can barely walk and doesn't really know how to hunt, the problems are largely of the "how to eat?" variety; when he becomes confident and successful - symbolically represented by the burgeoning patch of downy black fuzz on his upper lip - the problems are more of the "how to dodge hyenas in a snowstorm so intense that the snow is moving horizontally?" variety). This is of course artificial - it is the difficulty curve of a video game, not an actual survival situation - but Hughes paces the film so intently, keeping it at a nice, bright, unrelaxed 96 minutes in total (with credits), that one doesn't have a chance to stop and notice.

Plus, Alpha has the benefit of some very, very snazzy style. The Hughes Brothers have been directors who loved to put in some razzle-dazzle flair where it served mostly just to call attention to itself, and at least in the case of their misbegotten adaptation of the methodical graphic novel From Hell, this was an unambiguous evil. Alpha doesn't lose the razzle-dazzle, and to a certain extent, it doesn't even lose the indulgence: the first half-hour of the movie is full of some many glowering purple thunderheads over a burning orange sky that it more or less ceases to feel like our same Earth at any point in its history. But it's mostly true that the bold visuals Hughes and cinematographer Martin Gshlacht put together are in service to the roiling emotions of the drama, and the editing by Sandra Granovsky turns those visuals into a blast of expressionism. The opening scene gives us plenty to chew on: extreme contrasts in shot scale between the vast Eurasian plain with the huge bison as dots and the humans as pixels, with close-ups of hunters' faces in weary readiness; linear compositions that present the hunters as visual objects in relationship to each other; sudden movements within the editing that break down spatial logic in a manner that exactly fits the moment-by-moment confusion of the characters. These modes change as the film grows more intimate and the world grows less terrifying to Keda, but the basic set of principals remain, and the result is a film that does an admirable amount of its storytelling through the visceral effect of the imagery and cutting, with the implication that 20,000 years BP was simply a more visceral time to be alive.

That really is the thing Alpha is best at: more than its stated intention of showing how dogs were made, it's really just a fine plunge into a very different way of life, one that is violent and focused by necessity on the moment. One telling thing that happens is, early on, Keda can't bring himself to kill a pinned-down boar, disappointing his father: in a lot of movies, this would be a sign of his anachronistic progressive attitudes, or his spiritual sensitivity, or his ingenuity. In Alpha, it is a sign that he is going to fucking die if he can't get his head on straight. That total lack of sentiment permeates the whole movie (right down to its closing shot of ethereal silhouettes, which is a beauty: the effect isn't a heartwarming, "oh, we have doggies now!" but a stern "we survived to become modern humans in part by breeding these animals to help us kill other animals more efficiently"), affecting not just the story and the central performance (Smit-McPhee, almost always a reliable actor, commits hard to portraying Keda as entirely reactive and unable to afford the luxury of a nuanced inner life, once he ends up lost in the wilderness; the actors nails many close-ups of almost feral wariness and fear), but the way the film makes its world look big and stony and very much inhuman to an almost fantastical degree. It's easy to see why Sony couldn't figure out to market this subtitled, unfriendly movie with its leapfrogging plot structure and decidedly unromantic take on the "boy and his dog" motif, but it wouldn't be worth changing a thing: Hughes and his collaborators have turned out one of the most interestingly offbeat adventure movies in a long time, and one that, purely in reference to its own goals and strategies, could hardly be more satisfying.