Attack the Block (2011)
Dir. Joe Cornish
4 out of 5
Imagine if The Goonies grew up in the projects instead of the suburbs, and you’d begin to understand Attack the Block, a kinetic British sci-fi comedy about of a group of teenage street toughs defending their south London apartment complex from an alien invasion. When gang leader Moses (John Boyega) spurs his friends to kill the first creature they encounter, he unwittingly enters a game of survival that endangers his friends, his enemies, and his neighbors – including one (Jodie Whittaker) who is the target of a Boyega-led mugging in the film’s opening minutes. It’s a frighteningly funny twist on the survival horror formula, breathlessly plotted and brimming with attitude. Though it takes place on Guy Fawkes Night, the mood is pure Halloween prankishness that brings the silly and the spooky in equal measure.
The creatures in this movie have character. They are not CGI creations, but the old fashioned man-in-a-gorilla-suit style of beastie. Think of a pitch-black Komondor with no facial features except the glowing fangs of the creature in Alien. A hipster dropout (Luke Treadaway) with a background in biology just happens to be paying a visit to the block’s resident weed man (Nick Frost) this fateful night and conveniently develops useful theories about the creatures’ taxonomy and motives. Suffice to say, there’s a zoological explanation for this invasion that makes just enough sense if you don’t think on it too hard. It is worlds more satisfying than the imperative in a film like, say, Battle: Los Angeles.
Cornish, who wrote and directed, does a fantastic job of juggling the film’s many tonal shifts. Clearly a protégé of Edgar Wright, he deftly merges tried-and-true generic convention with the ever-shifting rules of storytelling in the Twitter Era. He also doesn’t blink when it comes to portraying the brutally violent deaths of kids barely old enough to shave.
If there’s a knock on Block, it’s that Cornish misses several opportunities to add depth to the film’s featherweight political subtext, especially given the grittiness of the setting and the rarity with which international moviegoers see the seedier side of Britain. These kids have been virtually abandoned by society at age 15 – the pay-as-you-go plans on their cell phones provide the only hint of actual parenting.1 But the film’s not really concerned with teachable moments, just throwaway jokes: when Whittaker mentions that her unseen boyfriend is off helping poor children in Africa, one of the gang wonders why British children seem so undeserving of charity. Really, that’s just fine for a movie that resembles a kiddie version of Die Hard. Perhaps it’s why Moses and his friends can quickly regroup and stand stalwart in the wake of the initial attacks – after struggling against the expectations and demands of the bourgeoisie, killer aliens are a piece of cake.
1 Only in the U.K. is the lack of “available minutes” a feasible suspense-building device. In America, even 7-year-olds have Droid phones with unlimited talk, text, and data; thus, we are conditioned to accept that a cell phone will always run out of battery just as the heroine realizes that the killer has broken into the house.