We’re just over seven months into 2011, and we’ve already seen a staggering number of alien-oriented films, and for the most part, they haven’t been friendly. In “Battle: Los Angeles” a ragged military crew squared off against the space invaders, while in the upcoming “Cowboys & Aliens” Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford will use old-timey western know-how to fight off the creatures from beyond. But there is another interesting trend developing even among this this little niche of films: kids are frequently the ones being called upon to save the day. In J.J. Abrams‘ “Super 8” best friends and junior high classmates outwit their parents and the military to save their town and the Earth, and later this year, “The Darkest Hour” will find Emile Hirsch and Olivia Thirlby helping a group of youths against another batch of extraterrestrials. But between those two films will be the hotly buzzed “Attack The Block,” a film that shares with “Super 8” a plot about some very young kids who find some very vicious creatures in their midst, but in all other respects is completely, refreshingly and excitingly different.
Director Joe Cornish does a very interesting thing with his film right from the start — he tosses out the traditional “first reel.” We don’t spend time getting to know the neighborhood, or meeting these kids one-on-one to get their full story but instead, three things happen: 1) some weird asteroid-looking things fall from sky into a council estate in south London 2) five youths mug a woman taking her wallet, purse and phone and 3) those same five youths find their petty crime interrupted by a strange creature, one that they quickly hunt down and kill. And this is all in the first ten minutes or so.
Yes, at 88 minutes, “Attack The Block” moves very quickly but in that time it quickly sets up an admirably and surprisingly multi-threaded plot, establishes the world and rules of the council estate in which these boys live and, oh yeah, delivers a fantastic, frequently funny and endlessly entertaining film. With the dead alien now in their possession, the quintet decide to take it to the local pot dealer Ron (a greasy haired Nick Frost) — who lives on the top floor of the apartment complex — mostly because he watches a lot of National Geographic channel, so he’s about as good an expert as they know. He confirms that it’s definitely not of this world and the group’s leader Moses (John Boyega) strikes up a deal with Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) — who owns the apartment, employs Ron and considers himself the top dog of the ‘hood — to keep the alien in his fortified weed room, while they figure out what to do with it next. Hi-Hatz agrees but on one condition: Moses will now work for Hi-Hatz selling dope on the street.
So, it would appear that Moses has a new job — which sends a jolt of pride and excitement through his crew — and something else to command his attention, but those pesky critters are far from defeated. From here, and without spoiling the rest of the film, a police van, a valiant rescue attempt, an alien battle and a few twists of fate now find Moses, his gang, gangly dope customer Brewis (a delightfully goofy and awkward Luke Treadaway) and Sam (Jodie Whittaker) — the woman they mugged earlier — forming an unlikely alliance as they battle these dark-as-night aliens, who have no eyes and glow-in-the-dark teeth, as they begin to swarm the block. And Cornish is ready to rock once the pieces are in position. One of the most memorable sequences of the entire film finds the five youths racing through the stairs of the apartment building to their respective homes to get armed to take on the aliens waiting for them outside. Not only is it just a plain joyous moment, but we get a peek into the home lives of each of these kids, and the scene also lets us know, scared or not, their neighborhood is not going down without a fight. Another is a battle waged in a fog-filled hallway where both predator and prey remain blind as the one tries to outrun the other.
While the film boasts a simple, elegantly executed premise it’s the surprising depth Cornish brings to his screenplay that elevates the film above simply being a polished genre piece. The opening mugging is not just there to conveniently tie together few characters that ordinarily wouldn’t mix, but later in the film, he circles back to it, using the event to peer behind the social and economic conditions that turn these (much younger than you think) kids into petty criminals. But by the same token, Cornish never absolves their responsibility for the crime they commit against Sam, and she too is viewed as more than just a victim, but instead, another element of the council estate population whose voice is heard perhaps less often than it should be.
However, Cornish, whose experience prior to this film has largely been in writing and directing television, does show his roots a bit here. If there is any minor complaint to be made about the film, it’s that the editing and pacing sometimes feel clunky or episodically staged. The structure is at times almost too plainly felt and its sectioned-off stages are too visible, slowing down a film that should never feel like it’s not in motion. But while he doesn’t quite get a handle on feature film rhythms, there’s no doubt he understands big-screen visuals. Working with cinematographer Thomas Townend — also shooting his first feature (trivia: he lensed Lynne Ramsay‘s first short film “Kill The Day“) — for a movie set mostly in one building it never feels small or claustrophic. Hallways might as well be valleys, and elevators are the size of conference rooms. Cornish and Townend understand that for Moses and his gang, this apartment complex is their entire world and thus, even something like a detour down to the parking garage might as well be going to another city. The filmmakers fully capture the way that every young person feels about their neighborhood, with gusto. And it certainly helps that the young, mostly newcomer cast — lead by an incredible turn by Boyega — are up to the challenge.
Much has been said about the thick accents employed in the film, and yes, the speedy Brit street-talk and slang might go over your head on occasion. But for the most part, its entirely a non-issue (if you listen to Dizzee Rascal, The Streets or Roots Manuva at all, you should be fine here too) and you’ll easily be able to enjoy the ride. “Attack The Block” marks a strong first effort from Joe Cornish and is a unique, compelling entry into a genre that desperately needs it. This isn’t a homage or an excuse to spend millions on elaborate CGI. Instead it puts character first and follows it up with a story worthy of the protagonists, that allows Cornish to flex his filmmaking muscles. Assisted by a great score by Basement Jaxx that is both atmospheric and electric (and in this writer’s opinion is far more memorable and seamlessly used than the Chemical Brothers‘ work for “Hanna“) “Attack The Block” features a quick wit and an even brisker sense of action and peril. Charming, original and alive in a way that few summer movies ever are, it’s well worth visiting the ‘hood of “Attack The Block.” [B+]