REVIEW: Attack the Block Doesn't Cut Deeply, But At Least Offers Lo-Fi Thrills
Attack the Block stems from an intriguing, clever idea: What if the neighborhood thugs you hope not to encounter on your walk home from the subway turn out to be the very people who save the Earth from alien invaders? The problem is that writer-director Joe Cornish -- a cohort of Edgar Wright's, and, along with Wright, one of the writers of Steven Spielberg's upcoming The Adventures of Tintin -- doesn't take the idea quite far enough: He begins to explore some pretty complex racial and class issues, only to let them drift out of his grasp. The picture's finale isn't as smart as it ought to be. Cornish tries to make a damning social statement, but the only thing you take away from the movie is how cool it is to kick alien ass.
But then, I guess kicking alien ass is pretty cool. Add to that the fact that the picture -- which made a splash at SXSW last spring -- has a low-key vibe and an admirably modest look: The aliens in question look as if they were made from a few shaggy lengths of $8.99 fake fur, though they've also been outfitted with snazzy glowing blue-green electric fangs. If Attack the Block doesn't cut quite as deeply as Cornish, in the movie's first third, hints that it might, at least it's powered more by modest smarts than by excessive, wasteful amounts of dough. The special effects are restrained and fairly effective; Cornish, to his credit, has done a lot with a little.
To an extent Attack the Block is cast in the mold of most alien-invasion movies, which are usually less about actual aliens than they are about the ways in which extraterrestrial outsiders tend to inspire groups of unlikely people to trust and help each other. The picture begins with a potentially violent mugging: Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young nurse living in a South London housing estate, is accosted by a group of neighborhood thugs in hoodies and face scarves, led by the menacing, scowling Moses (John Boyega). They threaten her with a knife, and just after they've divested her of her wallet and minimal jewelry, a blurry something-or-other comes crashing down from the sky onto a nearby car. Sam runs off to report the crime that's just been committed against her. The kids run off to pursue the mysterious creature -- at first they think it's just a surly dog -- who has attacked Moses. Once they've located and killed the slimy beast -- which, with its prickly, purplish skin and hunched back is most certainly not a dog -- they drag it off to the lair of Ron, the neighborhood weed dealer (he's played by Nick Frost), thinking it might be their ticket to fame and fortune. What they don't know is that there are plenty more aliens where that one came from, and they're pissed as hell.
The paths of Sam and Moses and his gang cross again and again during the course of the night. At one point, the gang ends up saving Sam's life in a crazy turn of events. Later, when one of the kids suffers an alien bite, he's brought to Sam's flat, and Moses, just as surly and glowering as ever, orders Sam to treat him. He growls that the gang saved her life; she reminds him that they also robbed her at knifepoint just a few hours earlier. But eventually, and predictably, everyone realizes the only way to stave off evil-Wookie armageddon is to band together.
But what begins as a grudging truce between a victim and her aggressors grows too quickly, and too unbelievably, into outright admiration. Sam is white and, even though she's just a nurse, by virtue of her skin color alone she's at first seen as privileged by the gang members, most of whom are black or of mixed race. The idea, clearly, is that we're supposed to come to sympathize with these grouchy teenage "monsters"; they're victims of circumstance, born poor and forced to live in a crummy place. As a badge of honor, they'll do whatever it takes to protect their block. After they've seen Sam's cozy, simply furnished flat, one of the kids tells her that they wouldn't have robbed her if they'd known she lived on the block. So it would have been OK to rob an outsider? she shoots back. It's one of the smartest, most charged exchanges in the movie.
But Cornish is more interested in transforming Moses from a headed-nowhere petty criminal to an Earth-saving hero, and the transition is too facile. Boyega certainly has presence: It's easy to see him as both a fearsome, imposing figure and a human being with the usual vulnerabilities.
But as the picture's written, Moses' alien-fighting heroics are somehow supposed to erase his previous bad judgment and even worse behavior, and the equation just doesn't wash. Attack the Block falls apart at the level of social commentary. But the final human-alien showdown is skillfully executed, a mighty clash between angry fur-creatures and angry teenagers who, at least, now have a real common purpose besides terrifying innocent nurses. Attack the Block isn't as high-minded as it wants to be, but at least it offers plenty of lo-fi kicks.