Written By: Kyla M. West
In October of last year, I received a message from my dear friend and colleague on the Porkchop Express:
“Have you seen the trailers for this ridiculous thing called Alpha?”
Alpha. I could feel my pupils dilate while they scanned over the five simple letters. My thoughts fixated on my instant, disgruntled association with the word, throwing my mental Rolodex for an excited spin while I sought a connection. For years, conversations between François and I orbited with a mutual intellect for all things biological.
“Nope,” I typed back, expecting that this common and antiquated term could only be leading to one species. A species I had dedicated my entire being to understand, which ordained my life’s plan and career path. I urged him to send me a link. In a handful of words, he provides a synopsis for a movie, both confirming my suspicions while arousing my concern. With a ‘click’, the trailer loaded.
At first, I was beguiled. The cinematic representation of my many interests flitted across the computer screen: the sweeping landscape and life that dominated the Pleistocene epoch, including indigenous peoples and their culture, and the story of a young man and his survival aided by none other than a wolf. I almost allowed myself to be charmed by the idea, until the trailer ended with an entombing statement:
“Witness the origin of the relationship that changed our world forever.”
My fingers dart to the keyboard, and we dissect the trailer. I play it again for good measure, finding more fault that I had been too captivated to notice before. How could they be publicizing this film as the origin of dog domestication, when our scientific community hadn’t even reached a cohesive, science-based conclusion?
Fast forward to this summer, the day after the movie’s premiere in theaters. That morning, I’d live-captured and radio-collared my first coyote of the season for the field research I led in the arid mountains of northeastern Washington state. The heart of wolf country. Only ten days prior we’d caught our first coyote – arguably one of the hardest wild animals to live-trap. Our team is beaming. Tradition dictates that a celebration is in order; that evening, our crew of three sets off for pizza and a movie. Curiosity besting us all, we decide on Alpha (2018).
Like anyone with a specialty, I have a hard time watching wildlife adventure movies. Give me something along the lines of Jaws (1975), Jumanji (1995), or heck, even Rampage (2018), and I’ll happily accept the portrayed role of animals as entertainment value. Though a die-hard Disney fan myself, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that animated movies catalyzed the precedent for the public’s misinterpretation of wild things (as did teddy bears, but I digress). Other pictures, however, struggle to find alluring content when depicting a theme of survival, and often use wildlife as a crutch for an exciting antagonist. I often work within the home ranges of carnivorous species, hike through forests and mountains in my spare time, hunt the back-country, and backpacked in Yellowstone, and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve encountered a wolf, cougar, or bear while on foot. For that reason, movies like The Grey (2011) continue to piss me off. Claim that you’re unveiling the origin story of a species, however, and you can bet you’ll have one scrutinous biologist on your hands. Did I mention that beyond their ancestry to wolves, we don’t actually know the origin of how Canis lupus familiaris came to be?
We three researchers looked at each other as we settled into our theater seats, silently reaching above our heads to take our biologist hats off – a vow we made so we could at least try and enjoy the movie that we were too tempted by to ignore. Going in, we knew there would be errors. We just didn’t expect it to be…that painful.
Alpha (2018) focuses on the story of Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a tenderhearted and timid youth who sets out on his first hunting expedition to bring a long-awaited harvest back for his tribe. Following an ancient path towards abundant grounds led by his father, the tribal leader, Keda quickly demonstrates he is not well suited as a hunter. Through a montage of dreamy footage reminiscent of 300 (2006) – which, by the way, features a Revolutionary War style faceoff between tribesmen and steppe bison – Keda is soon targeted by a particularly vexed bison which not only charges, but rams into him. Out of what appears to be vengeance, the bison comes around for a second helping, this time deliberately catching Keda’s clothes on its horn, only to send the boy flying over a cliff. Surprisingly, the bison does not topple over the cliff’s edge along with Keda, because apparently physics also don’t exist in this movie.
Presumed dead by his tribe, Keda finds himself alone, injured, and under prepared to face the wilds of prehistoric Europe all by his lonesome. After a flash flood in the gorge, Keda finds himself among the remaining carnage of his tribe’s hunt. Hobbling along on a battered foot, Keda faces even more unlikely wild encounters when a pack of wolves ignores the choice carrion nearby and instead begin to pursue a bipedal gimp.
Fending the wolves off best he can, Keda is able to wound one and takes refuge in a gnarly tree. Once the pack loses interest, they go on their way, leaving the injured wolf and Keda to their respective fates. Keda is then faced with a choice to either kill the wolf or save it from the “life-threatening” scrape on its shoulder (which somehow also leads to audible, belabored, breathing). Clearly, no veterinarians were consulted for the making of this film.
Putting his own survival at risk, Keda realizes he does not have the heart to take the wolf’s life. Instead, the world’s first wildlife rehabilitator is born, and thus the bond between man and beast ascends. However, you’d be mistaken if you think it would take a long walk home and some snacks to domesticate a wolf.
The truth is, wolves are not wired to depend on humans. In any way. They could honestly care less about us! Even with the right personality, for example, the tolerance we see in Keda’s fuzzy counterpart, it takes intensive selective breeding to generate ‘tameness’ as seen in the film. Take a look at Dmitry Belyaev’s fox farm experiment: it took at least 4 generations of rigorous selective breeding – from mere inklings of desirable traits, mind you – before he first saw dog-like responses in the foxes (wagging tails, whining, and an interpreted eagerness to interact with people).
Further reading suggests that the domestication of wolves came about on their terms, not ours. I’m fond of the phrase, “survival of the friendliest”, the theory suggesting wolves who spent more time with hunter-gatherer humans developed a unique advantage to their conspecifics in the wilds. As “friendlier” and more tolerant (less aggressive and fearful) wolves hung around humans over many years, they essentially domesticated themselves by taking advantage of the resources associated with humans. Recent studies in genetics reveal that this friendliness – the neurochemical reactions that resulted from this hyper-social behavior – remains intact with domestic dogs but is lacking in modern wolves which still shy away from humans.
So, I guess if one ignores the science behind domestication, you can get yourself a really cool snuggle buddy, attack dog, and hunting partner in a matter of months. And how!
Keda even goes so far as to name the wolf. Any guesses? Any??
Alpha. He names her Alpha.
I should mention that this film is not in English, but a language designed for the movie – a sophisticated Paleolithic tongue. But they sure knew the Greek, “Alpha”! Or at least, they had a word which could be translated to represent our derived use of the first phonetic letter of the Greek alphabet. Historically, “alpha” was used to describe a dominant male or female animal. Want to know another secret? The idea of an “alpha” doesn’t actually exist. Yep.
For the sake of keeping this review brief, I’ll summarize the ethology of wolf packs by presenting what Dr. L. David Mech discovered in the 70’s. “Alpha” animals are often wrongly characterized by the biggest, baddest, toughest animal pushing its way to the top, earning the right to breed, lead, and so forth. The truth is, that isn’t how the complex social nature of wolves works (or other animals at that). Wolves with the most determined personalities become breeders, and those with submissive and less resolute traits often do not. Just because a burly 90-pound wolf exists in a pack doesn’t make it a breeder. A slight animal, however, might. It all comes down to personality, and like us, each animal has one. To be fair, Keda’s father explains the role of an alpha not as something you’re born into, but, “earning it with courage and heart”. That’s close enough, but why continue with a word that doesn’t exist in 20,000 B.C.? As Dr. Mech later found, wolf packs are typically family groups, with a breeding pair and multiple generations of their offspring.
Speaking of breeding animals, you sure wouldn’t think that an animal who is abandoned by its pack would be accepted again and then mate with the breeding male, right? Though wolves remain monogamous under most normal conditions, they will choose another mate if their partner disappears or is killed. If Alpha was a breeding female, then the pack would have likely dissipated due to the grievous trauma brought on by the loss of Mom. However, if she wasn’t a breeding female, and she returns to her pack to mate with, well, what would presumably be her father (uncommon but possible), then some seriously awry complications befell this picture’s wild pack. Clearly, no wolf biologists were consulted for the making of this film.
Oh, and spoilers – Alpha then leaves her pack to reunite with Keda when he needs her most, and she returns with him to camp and gives birth to the first litter of many that forevermore walks beside mankind. I mean, what?
For every ocular delight this film brought through its Planet Earth-style cinematic style, it required an aspirin for the ensuing headache for its biological nonsense. Taking my biologist hat off, however, this picture did portray a clever boy and his dogo story which every dog owner could relate to. With a strong emphasis on familial bonds, the requirements of leadership, and the strength found in companionship, Alpha (2018) offers itself as a good family film which imparts several life lessons. The most important of which, in my opinion, is that there is great strength found in having compassion, companionship, and courage to trust in who you are.
P.S. PSA: I also really hope this film doesn’t set off another frenzy in husky sales, and consequent rise in shelter residents as we saw with Game of Thrones. Or worse, the assumption that wolves or content wolfhounds can be tamed and become Hollywood stars (pssst…Chuck, the canine co-star in this film, is a Czechoslovakian wolf-dog, not a wolf or a standard wolf/dog hybrid). Don’t buy your kids wolves for Christmas, folks!