Attack the Block (2011)
88 min., rated R.
Grade: B +
"Attack the Block," a low-budget sci-fi comedy from Britain, is slowly invading the country and has already developed a cult following. Brit TV writer-director Joe Cornish applies a fresh coat of paint with his feature debut, attacking two camps in this alien-invasion thriller/teen stoner comedy amalgam. And for a genre movie, it never loses its scrappy, resourceful charm. "Attack the Block" is a complete blast.
Fireworks flood the sky in South London on the busy night of Guy Fawkes Day that an alien invasion could easily be ignored. Meanwhile, a nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker) makes her lonesome walk back home to her flat after work. Cornered on the street, she's mugged by a street gang of hooded, switchblade-wielding ruffians, led by 15-year-old Moses (John Boyega). (She's apparently on their hood block, even though she lives in the same housing project as them.) The hoodlums' irresponsible mischief gets cut short and Sam gets away when something drops from the sky and destroys a car. These things aren't meteors, but aliens that look like "a money fucked a fish." Moses has so much pride that he finds and kills one of them, and carries the carcass on a stick. But these inner-city thugs must not have seen Will Smith battle alien scum in "Independence Day," because the outer-space invasion is far from over. This means payback time to defend their turf.
For a first-timer, Cornish makes "Attack the Block" goofy, stylish, energetic, briskly paced, and entertaining. Taking inspiration from the works of Joe Dante ("Gremlins" in particular), John Carpenter (Cornish admits to being inspired by "Escape From New York"), this kids-against-aliens flick is like the anti-nostalgic, unsentimental step-child to J.J. Abrams' terrific Spielbergian "Super 8."
What could have been an upsetting and misguided approach, Cornish takes a gamble (and goes against filmic storytelling conventions) to make us side with the punks. Mikey, Mouth, Data, Chunk, et al. were a likably boisterous bunch in "The Goonies," but these mugging thugs aren't supposed to charm the pants off of us. As they begin using their home-grown weaponry to take out the aliens, the likably troubled Moses, Dennis (Franz Drameh), Pest (Alex Esmail), Jerome (Leeon Jones), Biggz (Simon Howard), and Tonks (Selom Awadzi) grow on you and become easier to root for as unlikely heroes. Whittaker, as Sam, comes the closest out of anyone to being an appealing protagonist. She's not just a victimized damsel-in-distress but as strong-willed as her hardened attackers. In his breakout debut, Boyega portrays Moses as a steely, silent type who acts the only way he knows how and only has his "lost boys" and neighborhood to call his family. The remaining young thugs are all drawn with colorful personalities, weed customer Brewis (Luke Treadaway) adds zoologist insight and some white-boy riffing, and younger thug wannabes Probs (Sammy Williams) and Mayhem (Michael Ajao) provide additional backup for laughs. Producer Edgar Wright's "Shaun of the Dead" actor Nick Frost brings his slacker comic relief to the block as pot dealer Ron, whose top-floor flat and grow room turns out to be the safest place to take refuge. Frost's supporting role is mostly relegated to hiding after he's stoned, which if corrected might have opened up more opportunities for laughs.
Cornish draws some social observations about class, ethnic fears, and perception that's slyly tucked inside the bloody gore and deadpan humor, all the while keeping the tone playful. As a break from chintzy CGI, the alien monsters (created by practical design) look like gorillas with glow-in-the-dark fangs and pose a nasty threat. In one great scene of action choreography, the boys, having joined forces with Sam, seek temporary shelter inside the apartment of their no-nonsense girlfriends, only to be besieged by the hairy, toothy monsters. The girls prove to be just as tough and street-smart as the boys when it comes to their fight for survival. The music score by Steven Price is a cool, nifty blend of hip-hop and retro synthesizer beats that crackles with energy.
American viewers might have to adjust their ears for the thick British accents and hoodlum slang, but that shouldn't stop anyone from joining the band-wagon consensus that "Attack the Block" is a lot of fun. To quote one character's command, "Allow it!"