Thugs vs. aliens: Bet on nobodies
By John DeFore
Friday, Aug 19, 2011
Like the big budget, star-heavy "Cowboys & Aliens," the British import "Attack the Block" pits invading extraterrestrials against a breed of earthlings rarely called upon to battle them. Unlike last month's film, though, this one's heroes are not archetypes from a bygone fiction genre; they're nobodies yanked from the streets of a modern city. (The actors playing them are nobodies, too.) Given what it does with its ingredients, the film might as well be called "Attack the Blockbuster" - a name befitting a tale whose scrappy vigor makes Hollywood's products look cobwebbed.
The title doesn't refer to blockbusters, of course, but to housing blocks, the depressing and dangerous apartment projects where England's poor live. For mysterious reasons, aliens have chosen to attack a single South London complex, the fast, furry beasts (with mouths full of glow-in-the-dark fangs) singling out five young thugs who would otherwise be preying on innocent humans. Over the course of one long night, the battle stretches from public areas, where the boys are used to being feared, to the living rooms and bedrooms in which they're still seen as children.
The movie's panache and energy were undeniable when it screened early for critics several weeks ago. At the time, its undercurrent of class-consciousness was simply that - a subtle theme with many precedents, among them George ("Night of the Living Dead") Romero's fondness for planting political barbs in zombie movies.
But seen again, days after riots overtook London, the movie looks prescient, maybe even important. It would be ridiculous to say English lawmakers should watch "Block" while deciding how to combat urban violence. But the movie does, in its unpreachy way, condemn society's two main ways of dealing with the discontented poor: policing them into submission and pretending they don't exist.
Take the way it opens. We watch as a young nurse, walking home from work, is surrounded by five men in hoodies and bandannas. A knife comes out; threats are made. Just as we fear robbery might become assault, a meteorite slams into a nearby car.
Sci-fi movies have taught us to expect, even cheer for, the quick evisceration of these criminals once we realize this meteorite carries an angry alien to Earth. (When Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Terminator" comes to town, his first act is to rip a street punk's heart out.) When it doesn't happen immediately - the head thug, Moses, kills the thing after it claws his face - we keep expecting it, waiting for other monsters to eliminate the gang until we realize that we're stuck with these undesirables for the rest of the movie.
While we're getting used to that, dozens of fresh monsters fall from the sky. Not realizing how tough they'll be to kill, the kids eagerly gather whatever rude weapons they can and rush off to chase and be chased.
Writer/director Joe Cornish (an associate of "Shaun of the Dead" director Edgar Wright) is too mature to excuse the teens' lawless ways or suggest we shouldn't condemn them; he simply forces us to view them as people instead of narrative objects, then to root for their survival. All but one of them are played by first-time actors, a couple of whom - John Boyega, charismatically taciturn as Moses, and Alex Esmail as a fireworks-loving smart aleck called Pest - shine even when more experienced actors join the action.
But no monster movie endures because of its political allegory or socioeconomic savvy. Like "The Thing" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" before it, "Attack the Block" demands to be seen simply because it is a thrill - a pulse-raiser whose perfect construction and pointed wit make it one of the year's most exciting films. Cornish smartly uses local color (including the automated hall lights used to cut the block's electric bills) to amplify a scene's danger, then cuts to stoner humor (courtesy of "Shaun" co-star Nick Frost, who plays a pot dealer) for just long enough to remind us what "comic relief" means.
In the end, police descend on the block at the very moment their presence becomes irrelevant. They misinterpret everything; locals watch as they blame all the wrong people. Soon their flashing lights will drive away, and the block will go back to taking care of itself the best it can.
Contains gory sci-fi violence, drug content and the kind of language most people would use when being chased by monsters with multiple rows of fangs.