Attack the Block is high-concept fun, pitting deadly invading aliens against a motley bunch of inner-city Londoners in an all-out war. Writer/director Joe Cornish imbues a simple, straightforward premise with character-driven depth and relentless full-throttle activity, sustaining the adrenaline through the entirety of the picture’s 88 minutes.
The film centers on the unlikely intersection of public housing-dwelling waitress Sam (Jodie Whittaker) and some of the wayward youths that live in her building. A gang led by Moses (John Boyega) has its attempted mugging of our heroine interrupted by a squealing, straining fanged alien that crash lands into a car. They kill it, bring its body home to the towering apartment building they call “the block” and are soon forced to team up with Sam to fight off an invasion of these enraged, deadly creatures.
Cornish makes use of explicit constraints that tighten the storytelling. The action is restricted to the long, sterile halls and tiny apartments of the block, as well as the streets that border it. No allusions are made to the broader significance of a hostile alien invasion, while the primary tunnel-vision focus centers on the existential plight of under-equipped characters fighting off an extraterrestrial mortal threat.
At the same time, the film paints an optimistic picture of post-racial harmony. Nothing makes disparate bands of humanity one quite like some good old-fashioned invaders from the cosmos. There’s a rousing, all-together-now community spirit to Sam’s teaming up with her wannabe-muggers, a spaced-out pothead and the other unique figures that inhabit the block. Whatever our differences, after all, there’s one thing we can agree on: the world is better off without angry, deadly aliens upon it.
Amid the relentless carnage, the filmmaker achieves an impressive, deceptively sneaky feat. His picture introduces Moses and his crew as dangerous thugs and spends the bulk of its running time slyly subverting that notion. No one goes to an adventure picture billed as “inner city vs. outer space” for its social message, and Cornish never pushes it. However, the notion that certain types of criminal behavior are determined by desperate circumstances, not some inherent character deficiency, is deeply felt here.
Moses, ostensibly a down-on-his-luck two-bit thief, is an unlikely hero, but as the film unfolds and the alien invasion plays out he discovers reservoirs of inner bravery and strength that he didn’t know existed. He lives up to the awesome legacy of his biblical name, leading the fight against the baddies not for his own life, but for those of his friends, his neighbors and the blissfully unaware citizenry-at-large.
Again, this is a snarky, humorous movie about blasting aliens to bits, but if you’re looking for more, you won’t be left hanging.
The Upside: This is smart, entertaining stuff with one foot planted squarely within its genre and another oriented toward an interesting social study.
The Downside: It gets a bit old at times.
On the Side: Look for Nick Frost as a hilarious pothead (different from the one mentioned above).