Y’know, after being underwhelmed by both Super 8 and Cowboys and Aliens these past few months (not to mention completely taking a flier on the presumably terrible Transformers 3), I was starting to wonder if maybe i had just gotten too old and cynical to enjoy a good alien invasion flick these days. But then, last night, I saw Joe Cornish’s thrilling debut Attack the Block, and I realized that that’s just succumbing to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Now this is an alien invasion done right, bruv. Believe it.
In short, Attack the Block is a hoot from start to finish, and it puts those well-heeled Hollywood competitors to shame. At turns funny and frightening, it has the freewheeling, energetic pulse of a Kick-Ass, the unintrusive but real layer of smart sci-fi social commentary that marked District 9, and, in no small part to the sleek Basement Jaxx score, a trip-hop and dub-step cool rivaling that of Hanna or Run Lola Run. Midnight in Paris is probably still my favorite film of 2011 so far, but if there’s any justice, this will be the sleeper hit of the late summer and early fall.
Attack the Block takes place in South London on the evening of Guy Fawkes Day, when fireworks are lighting up the sky and troublemakers are out on the prowl. Trying to get home on this dark night without being harrassed is Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young nurse new to the high-rise project she now calls home. She doesn’t make it. But before the hooded collection of street toughs who rob her can get away clear, a meteor of some kind suddenly totals a nearby vehicle. (Cue Sio Bibble: This can mean only one thing: Invasion.) While Sam makes a run for it, the gang — really, just a bunch of kids — move to check out what’s left of the car. The obvious ringleader sticks his head deep into the wreckage…
And, a la Harold and Kumar, we now meet our “real” protagonists. Moses (a charismatic John Boyega), the fellow who just entered the car, is not actually Evil Victim #1. Instead, he gets slashed across the face by some kind of space varmint, and so he and the rest of the crew — Pest (Alex Esmail), Jerome (Leeon Davis), Biggz (Simon Howard), and Dennis (Franz Drameh) — hunt down and kill the offending alien. Since nobody knows what it is, they decide to take the corpse to the pad of the local weed dealer (Nick Frost), who’s been known to enjoy stoning out over the National Geographic channel. Problem is, the rest of the very new arrivals to the block don’t take kindly to one of their number being murdered…and they all come a little bit bigger.
That’s basically the set-up, although there are few other characters running around to make things fun: Say, Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), the Avon Barksdale of this hi-rise, who has atrocious taste in hip-hop. Or Brewis (Luke Treadaway), the loserish grad student who’s just on the block for a resupply. (His funny intro is borrowed from Michael Bolton, except this time it’s to KRS-1’s “Sound of da Police“) Or Probs (Sammy Williams) and Mayhem (Michael Ajao), two gangsta-wannabe nine-year-olds who look up to the older crew. (Memo to Cowboys and Aliens: This is how you do little kids in an alien invasion story. See also: Newt.)
Attack the Block has some very funny moments — “Right now, I feel like going home, locking my door, and playing FIFA!” — and a good bit of stoner humor. But don’t get the wrong impression: This film as a whole is rather dark, and even ruthless at times. (At one point, on his dad’s orders, Dennis takes his cute little dog outdoors to join the team. Spoiler: It lasts about five minutes.) Not knowing much about Attack the Block other than that Nick Frost and the producers of Shaun of the Dead were involved, I expected the film to be jauntier. But it has an edge, alright, and a body count. The monsters here — basically furry gorillas with glow-in-the-dark fangs (or, for those of you in the know, grues) — may be low-fi compared to what we’re used to in these sorts of movies, but they can do some damage, and some rather grisly damage at that.
Which, of course, is part of the fun. As a horror movie, a comedy, and a smart, tightly-plotted thrill ride, Attack the Block succeeds on all fronts. If space aliens and dubstep aren’t your bag, then I guess there’s a chance you might find it all lo-rent and bewildering. Otherwise, this is the purest and most visceral roller-coaster ride of the summer so far, and, barring an absurdly good fall, one of the best films of 2011. Respect.