When Mrs. TK asked me about films I was looking forward to at SXSW, I said, “well, there’s this one movie about a group of British teenagers who are wannabe hoodlums, and they live in a slum and subsist on petty crimes.” “Huh, sounds interesting, ” she replied. “And then aliens attack,” I finished.
“Of course they do,” she dryly responded, with that adorable eye roll that’s reserved just for me.
That’s the film in the tiniest of nutshells, but there’s a good deal more to it than that. The laziest way to describe Joe Cornish’s first feature, Attach The Block, is to call it a British Monster Squad, which is, with all due respect to Monster Squad, a descriptor that cheapens the work. Attack The Block is a much smarter film than that gives it credit for, because it also manages to touch upon a host of class issues, the lives of poor teenagers, their bonds and fears. And, of course, there are aliens.
Now, with that perhaps unnecessarily expository introduction out of the way… Attack The Block features a small, tightly-knit group of young, poor 12 to 15 year old kids who spend their nights wandering the dreary streets around their monolithic apartment complex, nicknamed “The Block,” looking for easy prey to steal from. The film opens with them mugging a new resident to the neighborhood, Sam (Jodie Whitaker), only to be interrupted when something crashes from the sky right in their path, destroying car and disappearing into a nearby park. The boys quickly decide to hunt it down, and what follows is an intense, vicious, and often madcap series of hunts and chases as the boys realize that the Block is being invaded by something far more terrifying than them.
Swept up in their harrowing journey is their dimwitted local weed dealer, Roy (a small but brilliant turn by Shaun Of The Dead’s Nick Frost), Roy’s diminutive but deadly boss Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), Brewis (Luke Treadaway), a hapless stoner in the wrong place, and Sam herself as she eventually is forced to join forces with the boys for her own protection. The kids themselves are led by John Boyega as Moses (natch), played with wonderful youthful determination and surprisingly adult gravitas. They each have increasingly silly gangsta nom de guerres, like Tonks, Beats, and Pest (and are followed around by two tiny wannabes who’ve adorably named themselves Mayhem and Probs)
It is to put quite simply, a hell of a lot of fun. The interplay between the kids is note-perfect, as they portray a realistic blend of too-old, too-soon coarseness peppered with excessive and creative vulgarity, harsh cynicism, but also childlike earnestness and fearfulness. While their interactions with each other are full of false bravado, there’s a genuine camaraderie at play that compliments their characters and makes them far livelier than the average movie kids. Meanwhile, Sam creates an interesting foil for them, an innocent, doe-eyed woman who is furious at being taken advantage of, is virulently distrustful of them, but when forced to choose a side, discovers that there’s far more to them than their hardened, blustery exteriors. Along the way, they have to simultaneously evade cops as well as the psychotic Hi-Hatz.
Of course, the film’s real treats are the aliens, which are a freakish amalgam (no spoiler, as they’re shown in full early on) kind of Fenrir-inspired lupine monstrosities, with a touch of gorilla thrown in. Featureless and made of pure darkness except for their glowing fangs, they’re a surprisingly innovative take and a clever creation that works in spite of the film’s budget constraints, instead of because of them. The creature design, by Mike Elizalde (who also worked with producer Edgar Wright on Paul), makes amazing use of darkness and shadows, as the beasties slink in and out of the night with terrifying ease.
The film is more thrilling than scary, but those thrills are gripping and gut-clenching at times. Given that the film takes place over a single night, the pace of the film is frantic and pauses only to give the cast a chance to catch their breath, have some well-placed character moments, and then the monsters charge back in and they’re heaved back into the thick of battle and pursuit. Director Joe Cornish (who wrote the script as well) times his film nicely, allowing a handful of gasps of air before the chaos continues.
All of that being said, it’s not what I’d call a “great” film. But it’s a hell of a time, and it wears its genre love shamelessly on its sleeve. It takes a flurry of different inspirations and brands them with its own style, and feels like one of those pictures that was likely a blast to make. It’s simple in many ways, perhaps to a fault — the eventual answer to why the creatures are there is a little trite, and if you pay too much attention to the plot, you may end up rolling your eyes a bit. But it’ll suck you in with its enthusiasm. It revels in the joyously terrifying, and its rampage of a pace doesn’t really give you time to question it too much. Which in this case is just fine, as you’re best served to simply let yourself get lost in the Block.