In much the same way that Låt Den Rätte Komma In revolutionized the vampire yarn by setting it in Sweden during the early 80's, Attack the Block resuscitates the alien invasion genre thanks to the colorful backdrop of a public housing high-rise tenement in South London.
During Guy Fawkes night, Moses (John Boyega) and his band of street thugs decide to kick the evening off by liberating a local nurse named Samantha (Jodie Whittaker) of her belongings. Seconds later a meteorite slams into a parked car, prompting Moses to rummage through it for valuables. What he finds instead is a vicious creature which slashes his face and bounces off. Not one to back down from a fight, Moses and his crew track the thing down and kill it.
Unfortunately the critter turns out to be alien in origin and, even worse, a scout of sorts. Pretty soon the things are raining down in Brixton like hailstones, terrorizing the residents and "wilding" like no gang member ever could. Seeing this a direct affront to the "block", Moses does his best to defend Wyndham Tower from the invaders and pretty soon the council estate becomes an interstellar battleground for the ages.
Attack the Block is loads of fun. Although the premise might not be the most original thing in the world, the setting alone makes it unique. Like a real-world version of Alex's Droogs from A Clockwork Orange, these aspiring punks have their own unique language. Other than Sascha Baron Cohen's Ali-G, I've never heard characters talk like this in a movie before and the challenging patois forces you to sit up and pay attention. For example, the predisposition of local wannabe gangsta rapper Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) to shout the Jamaican greeting of "Wagwan!" whenever he bombs into a room had me chuckling every time.
Despite the fact that movie's budget was under twelve million dollars, it looks incredibly slick. Director Joe Cornish and cinematographer Tom Townend have produced a beautiful looking picture which is impeccably lit, rain-glossed and awash with gorgeous splashes of neon color. Add in some dynamic blocking, lively editing, thrilling action set-pieces and a modest run time and you've got an experience that just jets by in the most entertaining way imaginable.
The film's aural accomplishments are also considerable. Above and beyond the shrill screams of the monsters, the audio mix is powerful, with booming meteorite hits, roaring mopeds and blazing fireworks. The film's original soundtrack features moody, John Carpenter-esque ambient electronic tones by Basement Jaxx punctuated with classic tunes by Richie Spice and KRS-One. One notable highlight is an original jam "by" High-Hatz called "Get That Snitch" which manages to marry gangsta rap with a twinge of nerdcore.
Another major part of the film's appeal is the original creature design. Looking like a combination of Donkey Kong, Sonic the Hedgehog, Fizzgig from The Dark Crystal and a really pissed-off shadow puppet, the aliens in Attack the Block are like elemental forces of nature. These spiky-haired black holes of pure rage are inherently terrifying, particularly when they lunge directly at the camera, their rows of glowing, blue, translucent, crystalline fangs intent on your neck. The effect used to drain every ounce of color and light out of their hides is strikingly effective.
A movie like this has the potential to go from good to great if the cast is game and Attack the Block truly shines in this regard. John Boyega, who recently became Finn for a whole new generation of Star Wars fans, makes a meteor-like impression as young tough Moses. It's so rare to see a character have an arc like this in a sci-fi picture this but screenwriter Joe Cornish gives Boyega a lot to work with and he really delivers.
Joe Cornish does a great job peeling back the layers to this character. As soon as goes after the creature that attacks he we can see that he's brave, so that's a tic in the "positive" column. Not long after he expresses regret over what this random act of violence has wrought. By the time he Sam sees his room, learns about his home life and realizes how old he is, Moses has come fill circle in our eyes. Major props to John Boyega for making the evolution of this character seem genuine every step along the way.
Since most people haven't grown up on the hard streets of South London, our window into this world is the character of Samantha Adams, played to perfection by Jodie Whittaker. She's a hard working nurse, barely getting by and she's new to the neighborhood. So when she gets jacked up by Moses and his posse we're immediately on her side. Throughout it all, Whittaker is strident, sympathetic, feisty and self-assured. Better yet, she's the perfect sounding board for our increasingly-complicated feelings about the gang members.
Speaking of the gang, they're all clearly drawn and well-represented by talented young actors. Motor-mouthed Alexander Esmail is great as the cocky, lovable, pyromaniacal irritant (appropriately) named Pest. Franz Drameh brings an out-of-patience edge to the character of Dennis. Leeon Jones is whip-sharp as the relatively bookish Jerome. His frantic delivery of the classic line "This is too much madness to explain in one text!" is spot-on. Rounding out the gang is Simon Howard as Biggz, who spends most of his screen time trapped in a alien-besieged dumpster. He does a great job selling "scared shitless" to the audience.
Even the bit players are great. Genre comedy darling Nick Frost is perfectly cast as the block's friendly neighborhood weed-peddler Ron. Luke Treadaway is a skittish delight as Brewis, an anthropology student who just so happens to be Ron's best customer. It's great to watch him slowly earn the gang's respect when his half-baked theories turn out to be accurate. And although Jumayn Hunter has plenty of legitimate swagga as Hi-Hatz, the script forces him to act like a complete moron in order to preserve him as an antagonist. Sorry, but even the dimmest bulb on the planet would rethink their priorities after encountering one of those "big alien gorilla wolf motherfuckers".
Impressively, Attack the Block isn't content just being a sharply-written sci-fi actioner; it also strives to provide some biting social commentary. This is nicely summed up in the following soliloquy by Moses who opines about a possible reason for the attack:
"I reckon the Feds sent them anyway. Government probably bred those things to kill black boys. First they sent in drugs, then they sent guns and now they're sending monsters in to kill us. They don't care man. We ain't killing each other fast enough. So they decided to speed up the process."
This is further borne out by the film's brave denouement in which the authorities go after the usual suspects versus the obvious, if unconventional, ones.
Honestly, Attack the Block surprised the heck outta me. While casual viewers can enjoy it on a purely superficial level, cinephiles will dig it for the great dialogue, solid performances, witty script and the thematic relevance. Honestly, it's a movie that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Neill Blomkamp's District 9 when talking about impressive genre-themed directorial debuts.