It’s Guy Fawkes Night, and the South London sky is pulsing with brilliant explosions. In the midst of the celebration, Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is mugged at knife-point by a gang of teen hoodlums. Before they get away with their meager take, however, a flaming object smashes into a nearby car. Moses (John Boyega), the gang’s leader, looks for valuables amidst the wreckage rather than investigating its cause. He’s greeted by a nasty little ball of white fur and teeth, which the gang promptly kills. Soon thereafter dozens more flaming projectiles fill the sky, which arouse in the hoods uncontrollable excitement at the prospect of an intergalactic rumble.
“Attack the Block” is a movie made by people who love movies. First-time director Joe Cornish, with help from Big Talk Prods. (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”) assembles a collection of monster movie, coming-of-age and action flick tropes into a seamless, original work of modern cinema, with equal parts subversive social perceptiveness, indie wit and Hollywood bombast. It’s as if Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Donner, Danny Boyle and John Carpenter got together and decided to create a balanced blend of their respective sensibilities.
The pace is blistering, the humor is tack sharp and the action is clear and exciting. But, the feature that gives “Attack the Block” the advantage over even the best monster flicks of recent years is its creature design. Hairless, slimy, tentacled creatures of the invertebrate variety are a well-worn style. Repulsive insectoid aliens, like those in “District 9,” are also becoming a little tired. Instead, Cornish and his design team have opted for radical simplicity. Deep black fur, an ape-like gait and rows of glowing teeth are about the only distinguishing features of the invaders. This ingenious design feels instantly iconic, and, what’s more, aptly represents the film’s lurking subtext.
Hitting theaters in the wake of London’s recent riots, “Attack the Block” couldn’t have come at a better time. The film’s heroes are the same disillusioned youths accused of instigating the mayhem that brought large swaths of the city to its knees last month. They are the first villains of the film, that is, until an even greater evil falls from the sky. It seems clear that the black, purposeless aliens, bent only on destruction, are meant to symbolize the way in which England’s upper classes, even further removed from the proletariat than in America, view the lower classes. That the invasion is limited to only a few city blocks, and that police are generally oblivious to it, seems to confirm this. And by giving our hoodlums a purpose and a powerful foil, Cornish, without condoning it, helps us understand their misdeeds; a key moment being when Sam finally joins her assailants’ anti-alien attack squad. She presses them on why they would rob a defenseless nurse on her way home from work. They respond by saying they wouldn’t have done it if they had known she lived in the same building that they do. With that 15 seconds of dialogue Cornish elucidates England’s congenital subterranean class warfare, and allows us to root for whom we earlier dismissed as street thugs.
But, for most people, “Attack the Block” will be seen as nothing more than a fantastically entertaining B-movie-style monster flick. And considering how well it does that, everything else is just icing on the cake.