A version of this review first appeared as part of our coverage of South by Southwest 2011.
A satisfying genre movie is good. But a satisfying genre movie with a brain — a film that combines visceral excitement with cerebral smarts — that’s the film geek holy grail. And that’s “Attack the Block,” a mash-up of 80s alien horror and sci-fi films like “Critters,” and “Predator” and gang flicks like “The Warriors” and “Streets of Fire” with a sly metaphorical critique of rebellious youths who defend their poor behavior as “protecting their territory.” If the five kids at the center of “Attack the Block” are wary of outsiders in their neighborhood, you can imagine how they react when the ultimate outsiders, a bunch of toothy, “gorilla-wolf” looking aliens with no eyes and glowing neon fangs, start invading their turf.
Writer/director Joe Cornish — a collaborator of Edgar Wright’s on their as-yet unproduced Ant-Man screenplay and Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Tintin film — begins things with a bold stroke: by introducing his protagonists as cruel thugs. This ragtag bunch of British teens jump a woman named Sam (Jodie Whittaker) on her way home from the bus, and steal her wallet and jewelry. The robbery is interrupted by a falling meteor; inside is the first alien, which attacks ringleader Moses (steely-eyed future movie star John Boyega), prompting the gang to pursue and then kill it in retaliation. While the crew tour their trophy around the giant housing complex (or “block”) where they all live, a whole bunch of bigger, angrier aliens of gorilla-wolf looking variety arrive. Refusing to call the police (you don’t trust the 5-0 on the Block, yo), they dump the corpse in the local weed dealer’s stash room, grab some baseball bats, fireworks, and a samurai sword, and head out to rid their hood of the extra-terrestrial terror.
It feels a little strange to call a movie about bloodthirsty gorilla-wolf aliens authentic, but that’s exactly what “Attack the Block” is. From the characters to their conversations to their home to their reactions to those aliens, everything about the movie feels real to life. Though “Block” has its share of crazy cool moments, these kids aren’t super-heroes. They don’t have artfully choreographed wire-fu moves or big shiny handguns to fire whilst leaping through the air and screaming. The kids of the Block (who, I suddenly realize, could really use their own gang name) might not realize it at first, but they are sorely out of their league, and their actions have intense unforeseen consequences. Because Cornish grounds the film so believably in this world and these characters, we personally feel every single one.
That’s not to say “Attack the Block” isn’t also very funny, thanks to Frost’s deadpan disinterest as Roy the weed dealer, and especially Luke Treadaway as one of his rich kid customers, whose perpetual bad luck is the audience’s comedic good fortune. Balancing laughs and scares in this sort of movie is no easy task. If the film’s too funny, the horror isn’t horrifying, and if the horror’s too horrifying, we’re too scared to laugh. Cornish manages to find the sweet spot.
He also manages to find something to say with this story too. Buried none too deeply beneath all the alien excitement is a critique of territoriality and the dehumanizing effects of the housing projects like the Block, which turns neighbors into complete strangers. Cornish deconstructs our preconceived notions about the people we live with and around, and then he blows them all up, figuratively and literally.