2011 has been quite the year for alien movies. From the B-grade Battle of Los Angeles, to the Spielbergian Super 8, to the underwhelming Cowboys and Aliens, the invasion stories keep on coming. Attack the Block has slipped into the summer line-up with much less fanfare. The British film’s quick humor, stunning visuals and a story that’s entertaining, dense and timely make it the year’s best extraterrestrial invasion.
Written and directed by Joe Cornish, the sci-fi action comedy centers on a gang of teenage thugs—particularly their disgruntled leader, Moses, remarkably underplayed by newcomer John Boyega—and their housing project in South London. When the defiant juveniles take their crime to a new level and mug an innocent nurse (a delightful Jodie Whittaker), they immediately find themselves plagued by alien invaders. These hideous creatures, with their jet black fur and glowing blue fangs, want nothing more than to destroy the boys and their tower block.
The straightforward story at first seems like typical summer fare, but as it plays out, we discover something more lurking beneath it. In the spirit of Spielberg, even more so than J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, Cornish uses alien beings as the catalyst to bring supernatural redemption to a person and a community. He focuses specifically on the London’s bottom half and the sociological turmoil surrounding them, a topic that couldn’t be more relevant given the current riots there. In doing this, Cornish exposes the lies that society’s youth buys into that prolong cultural discontinuity. A comical scene, in which Moses tries to make sense of the aliens while giving excuses for his criminal behavior, highlights this cleverly—he doesn’t just blame the government for violence and drugs in his neighborhood. He blames the government for the whole alien invasion.
Cornish, however, doesn’t simply confront this hopeless attitude; he points toward hope. We see this most vividly in the way Moses battles the aliens and the symbolic implications of that fight. At first he tries to escape them through running and avoidance before realizing that he must face the beasts. And he doesn’t do it on his own. The role of community is more than pivotal. Thus, in the end, the alien invasion exists as more than just an alien invasion. It’s one giant metaphor for the darkness that binds Moses, his friends and block, and more specifically, our communities and cities now and how the problems at hand must be dealt with.
This subtext, which Cornish weaves into every shot and scene, instills Attack the Block with a vast amount of substance, but that’s not to say the film doesn’t make for an entertaining ride. Cornish lays a solid foundation with all the preliminaries of a quality summer blockbuster and then builds upon them. Capped at 87 minutes, his plot moves at a seamless pace, feeling like a race with the outcome riding on Moses’ shoulders. This sense of urgency makes the action all the more riveting. From a gang-vs.-alien battle in a hallway of smoke to the final showdown, the action sequences come to the screen imaginatively and diversely. In his directorial debut, Cornish shows a sure talent for detail and movement. His swift, sleek edits clearly invoke the work of Edgar Wright, who produced the film.
Cleverly though, Cornish doesn’t just borrow from Wright aesthetically. He also exhibits the same sense of humor that’s made films like Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World cultural phenomena. This comedy—a precise blend of slapstick and clever dialogue—comes through in the well-crafted script, but it’s most notable in the characters and the chemistry between them. Thanks to some fine performances from a young cast of actors, as well as Luke Treadaway and Nick Frost who play a pair of stoners, we get a believable group whom we can just sit back and enjoy.
While the culmination of all these elements—the engaging humor and action combined with appealing characters and innovative visual effects—makes Attack the Block incredibly watchable, it also makes its meaningful implications less didactic and more pertinent. For this, it strongly contrasts the overrated District 9, which explored the same kind of social and racial issues in the alien genre but failed to make any strong or valid points about those subjects. Attack the Block doesn’t settle for empty metaphors and confused ethics. When it reaches its grand finale, we’re not left wanting. We’re left challenged and enriched, socially and morally.