If I were a big Hollywood executive I think I would find Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block too embarrassing to watch.
In the midst of a Summer where one blockbuster after another washed up in theaters bloated and overproduced and joyless, along comes this scrappy, unabashedly earnest flick about kids from the neighborhood fighting back an alien invasion, and it absolutely clowns all the big boys. Super 8? Here is the is all the excitement you were looking for. Cowboys and Aliens? Remove your ten gallon hats. A real crowd-pleaser is passing.
If nothing else Attack the Block should get credit for the best movie creatures I’ve encountered since 2006’s The Descent. At what point did everyone in Hollywood decide that slimy, big-eyed squid creatures were it when it came to aliens? Independence Day? Attack the Block gives us giant wolf-like beasties made up of teeth and shadows. Having a monster that is 98% darkness is, of course, a great way to keep the FX budget down, but, like all good low budget success stories, Block turns its limitations to advantage.
Of course the effects don’t come close to, say, your random Transformer, but, honestly, who gives a shit? Who cares about whether the FX are flawless when they are this cool, fun, and original? Like the shark in Jaws, even when one can blatantly spot the artifice the aliens still engage the viewer’s imagination so effectively that questions of their technical perfection become irrelevant. But I’m already getting lost in parsing all the cool parts of Attack the Block. Let me backtrack.
The story focuses on a gang of poor London kids introduced mugging a nurse at knifepoint on her way home from the hospital. Right away, one can hear the cries of hypothetical studio executive:
“This kid is a mugger and he’s supposed to be the hero? Couldn't it be a case of mistaken identity and he’s really innocent?”
Not this movie. One of Cornish’s biggest accomplishments is putting a bunch of kids front and center without softening them or turning them into the kind of wind-up quip machines we’re used to seeing in other movies. Like real teenagers these kids do stupid, immoral things without themselves being stupid or evil. The script doesn't excuse their behavior but it does take the trouble to understand them as characters, which is invaluable for making us care when limbs start flying.
After the confrontation there is a meteor strike and the gang tangles with a small creature they can’t quite identify. The first meteor is immediately followed by a few dozen more meteors containing the small creature’s much bigger, much meaner relatives, and all manner of Hell breaks loose on this poor London neighborhood.
As one would expect, the kids and the nurse are forced together to survive the common threat, but even as the film is going through the genre paces it never feels tired or familiar. Cornish doesn’t let the energy flag right through to the end, and the performers – especially John Boyega in what should be a star-making turn as Moses, the gang's taciturn leader – create personalities worth caring about amid all the mayhem.
I’m pleased to report that being a genre flick hasn’t prevented Cornish from taking care with the construction of his screenplay. It isn’t until the last third of the movie that we appreciate what an effective job the first third did setting the stage for the upcoming battle. When we reach the final confrontation things are not settled by the usual orgy of random violence, but with much more satisfying paying offs involving strategy and character beats that proceed convincingly out of what came before.
Maybe the most surprising thing about Attack the Block is that when all is said and done the movie is actually about something, about empathy and the way that there are often good kids inside the so-called bad ones if life would ever give them a chance to show it. None of this is presented with a heavy hand, but in that good George Romero way where you get a few thoughts to take with you as a side dish to the carnival of destruction.
But let’s table all that talk about depth and meaning for now and focus on the important thing: Attack the Block is fun. Loads of it. The laughs are frequent and unforced. The action delivers in a big way. Cornish even delivers some moments of visual invention I won't soon forget such as the sight of the creatures swarming up the side of an apartment building like the spiders at the end of Arachnophobia, or a slow-motion stunner featuring Boyega running two steps ahead of a whole hallway full of raging aliens.
The major movie studios seem to be on a mission to remove quality from the equation of a movie's success. The goal is to choose a subject bland enough to appeal to everybody everywhere, shoot the bare minimum of cool footage required to string together a decent trailer, then simply choke the airwaves with ads and presto – no need to concern themselves with the risky business of making enjoyable movies. By the time the first wave of audiences stagger back into the daylight shouting “Rip off!” they’ll have picked enough pockets to cover their asses. Attack the Block is the antidote to all that. After a steady diet of phony simulated fun, it feels great to get a taste of the real thing.
Verdict: It is appropriate that Shaun of the Dead’s Nick Frost is on hand to play a small part in Attack the Block because this flick is sure to join his horror send-up as beloved cult favorite. Still, it’s hard not to imagine what could have been if someone had the vision to give this the major release it deserved. Think of the untold numbers of moviegoers who could have had a great night at the movies, but who had to instead settle for being bored silly by Green Lantern. 8 out of 10