Imperfect alien invasions have plagued 2011. From the U.S. military in “Battle: LA” to America’s gunslingers in “Cowboys and Aliens,” this year’s human heroes have packed heat and won the war, but the explosion-heavy battles were not incredibly inventive. In J.J. Abrams’ throwback “Super 8,” its stellar kid actors and little else kept it from being generally forgettable. Thankfully England has picked up our slack with perhaps their best alien attack since Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” And like “Super 8,” its strength also revolves around a cast of young unknowns. It just doesn’t end there.
“Attack the Block” is an interplanetary turf war between street toughs and aliens in the dregs of South London. It opens on a group of hoodlums led by a punk named Moses (John Boyega) as they mug a nurse, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), on her way home from work. Then aliens crash-land on their block. The riff-raff soon become Sam’s best hope as they are forced to join together in their fight for survival.
Everything about the film is refreshing. First, it takes a group of very authentic kids (played by some stellar young actors) whose interaction, lingo and brotherhood are all authentic to London’s street thugs. Next, it puts them at home in a dingy apartment complex where instead of gaping in awe at the alien threat and wondering how or why the creatures came to earth, the group reacts like media-saturated young gangsters would and defend their hood. Instead of guns blazing, they fight with a baseball bat and a collector samurai sword. Thanks to excellent writing and directing from Joe Cornish (who came up with the concept after being mugged by a similar group of young thugs), the kids are believable punks on an individual and group level. They’re the bad kids, not your typical heroes, and their transformation makes them memorable.
Cornish keeps the movie funny with a lot of situational humor and excellent dialogue – the boys’ girlfriends hang up on their frantic calls, telling them to call back when they aren’t playing videogames; the potty-mouthed guys rag on Sam for swearing too much. The thick accents and foreign slang (“believe, brev” and “allow it” color the film) do beg for subtitles at first, but as the film goes on it gets easier to understand. Additionally, Nick Frost of “Shaun of the Dead” and most recently “Paul” fame supports as a drugged-up pot grower, and his stoned take on the action keeps everything from getting too serious.
Not that the aliens aren’t scary. Cornish’s invaders break the modern trend of CGI-heavy, visually overwhelming monsters. His are grounded in reality. The low-budget creatures are actually guys in costumes (among them, Terry Notary, who ran Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” movement school), and are jet black with glowing teeth. The kids describe them as “big, alien, gorilla-wolf mother—ers,” and it’s their similarity to bears and ferocious dogs that make them terrifying. They are filmed to maximum effect. Early on, Cornish suggests them, couching their movements in shadow. Later, when the gang sees a dead one up close, they realize that’s essentially what the aliens are – jet black shag carpets with razor sharp teeth. But it’s not a comforting feeling.
Cornish also avoids zooming too close as the kids bike up cement ramps, run through hallways and fight their way through the block, letting viewers actually watch what’s going on. His choice in aliens and camerawork are both refreshing when so many filmmakers today opt for CGI and hand-held camerawork, and his strong story and actors make it a must-watch film. Believe, brev.