This weekend there were two alien invasion movies, one of which involved cowboys and bad writing, and the other had its aliens land right in the middle of a different setting in which aliens aren’t normally found, and was very good: Attack The Block. Executive-produced by Edgar Wright, this seamless, exhilarating blend of horror, SF, and comedy is the feature debut of writer-director Joe Cornish, and guarantees that I’ll be running to see his next movie, because…wow….
The action kicks off with Sam (Jodie Whittaker) walking back to her apartment in a rough-around-the-edges council estate, getting mugged by a gang of teenagers, who even in the moment are just as scared as she is (as they later tell her). This was actually based on a real incident when Joe Cornish himself was mugged, and realized his muggers were really scared and decided to research their lives. The part where Cornish (presumably) starts to fictionalize is when the mugging is interrupted by an alien, which lands loudly and destructively inside a nearby parked car, and responds aggressively, cutting the face of the leader of the gang, Moses (John Boyega), as he approaches. The gang chase the alien down and kill it, bringing it to local weed dealer Nick Frost’s apartment to leave in his ultra-secure “weed room” (which, as is later explained, is a room with a lot of weed in it). The gang avail themselves of a fair amount of Mr. Frost’s weed and just as they do a whole lot more aliens land, bent on revenge. The rest of the movie is concerned with the aliens’ attempts to kill the gang, and the gang’s attempts to not get killed by the aliens. Which is just as it should be.
If that was all there was to Attack The Block, though, it wouldn’t be as wildly entertaining as it is. Cornish’s script is filled with wonderful characterizations; we genuinely like the kids in the gang, even though they’re in the habit of mugging defenseless women. This is a very tricky balance that Attack The Block pulls off effortlessly and it makes Sam’s similarly iffy decision to help the gang fight the aliens seem believable. No supporting character goes to waste, from the older woman with the colorful vocabulary who comforts Sam after she’s first mugged; to Nick Frost’s unflappable, perpetually high dealer; to the considerably less agreeable head drug dealer in charge/gangsta rapper manqué; to the younger wannabe gangsta kids Probs and Mayhem (who come up with quite a creative use for a Super Soaker); to, most especially, a group of neighbor girls to whom the gang turn to for help and who provide a crucial insight that greatly helps the fight against the aliens.
The aliens are genuinely scary, which is a crucial part of Attack The Block working as well as it does. The effects are old-school/pre-CG-looking, and are sold by the director, cinematographer, and editor’s joint effort. The aliens look scary when we seen them, and the movie always cuts away just before a longer glimpse could shatter that illusion. If the aliens were campy, the movie wouldn’t work, but they’re not, so it does.
Just as effective as the horror and the SF (which is thankfully not overexplained) is the comedy. Cornish’s script is genuinely in love with language, creating a distinctive patois made up of London slang, hip-hop/gangstaspeak, and razor-sharp pop culture references, the kind of thing bad writers blow terribly and good writers make sing. Joe Cornish is a good writer. His direction is terrifically solid too, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats from start to finish, and managing to make a movie with quite a far-fetched premise seem plausible, and which doesn’t take itself seriously and yet doesn’t laugh at itself.
I particularly enjoyed the gradual transformation of the gang’s charismatic leader, Moses, from an initially angry and potentially vicious thug to a thoughtful penitent and ultimately genuinely heroic kid. He also has a very concise, powerful catchphrase: “Allow it.” He invests those two words with great power, leaving no doubt that he is the leader and the movie’s hero. John Boyega’s performance is the best in a movie with quite a few good ones. Jodie Whittaker’s performance is a close second, as she inhabits an emotional arc that brings her from fear to righteous anger to reluctant collaborator and ends with a genuine respect for Moses and a grudging admission that the kids are all right, which really, they totally are.
Attack The Block could appeal greatly to audiences unable to identify with Super 8‘s suburban nostalgia, dealing as it does with kids fighting aliens, but as someone who greatly enjoyed both, I would call them very interesting companion pieces. Attack The Block has a kind of dangerous scruffiness that really hit the spot for me. It’s a very honest, sincere movie that’s done extremely well (and very, very violently) that, for once, literally embodies the old canard, “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry.” I cannot recommend this movie enough for SF and horror fans, and keep a very attentive eye on Joe Cornish. We have definitely not heard the last of him.