Spoiler Level: Low
Sometimes all you need to make a tired genre feel fresh is a change of setting. Attack the Block—the triumphant feature debut of writer-director Joe Cornish—moves the '80s-style alien invasion movie out of the Spielbergean suburbs and into the projects. ("I used to wonder why those stories never happened where I lived," Cornish has said of the films he loved as a kid, and it's a fair question: why is it always middle-class white kids who stumble on the extraterrestrials?) By dropping its monsters down in a South London council estate, and by finding its unlikely heroes in a multi-racial group of teen-age delinquents, Attack the Block achieves something remarkable: it makes what could have been a formulaic, low-budget monster movie feel like a story we've never seen before.
We meet our "heroes" in a decidedly non-heroic act: holding up a nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker) at knife-point on her way home from work. (It's Guy Fawkes Night, and the fireworks and explosions going off all around the estate just underline the feeling that this place is already a war zone, long before the actual battle begins.) The film doesn't downplay how terrifying the experience is for Sam, who agrees with an elderly neighbor that the kids are "fucking monsters," and it's to the film's credit that these kids are not adorable, harmless tots. They are kind of scary, and none more so than their taciturn leader, Moses (played by John Boyega, in what should be a star-making first performance). But they're still kids, and Cornish manages as well to capture a little of how much fear, desperation, and world-weariness is behind their posturing. They're bored, impetuous children, left largely on their own to survive. (They even have community pride and an ethical code—of sorts. "The knife was there to make it go quicker," they tell Sam later. "We never would have robbed you if we knew you lived here.")
The kids are so used to a brutal life that they barely even flinch when the first alien shows up and attacks Moses, and their first instinct is to track the beast down and beat it to death. They then parade the thing's corpse around the estate like a trophy, and have to find a good place to hide it—the local weed den is the most secure spot they know—until they can figure out how much it might be worth on E-Bay. Unfortunately, other monsters are landing, and are coming looking for the body.
Attack the Block is executive produced by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), and shares some narrative DNA with films like Gremlins and The Goonies, but the movie really harkens back to the more gritty and witty sci-fi and horror films of John Carpenter. With all the multi-million dollar CGI creatures we've seen on screens this summer, Attack the Block provides a refreshing reminder of what can be done with a shoe-string budget, some enclosed spaces, and characters who seem like real people facing a threat together. The monsters here are a refreshing change too, as Cornish eschews the standard reptilian/bug monsters for creatures that look more like hairy bears with glowing green teeth. (The characters call them "gorilla dogs," but they reminded me most of the "stupid, stupid rat creatures" from Jeff Smith's graphic novel Bone.)
It's the humans who are the real stars of Attack the Block, however, and Cornish has assembled an excellent cast of newcomers and veterans alike. The young, mostly unknown actors who play the hoodies speak in a rapid-fire slang that is convincing and strangely lyrical, and they are funny like real kids, not like movie kids: their one-liners all seem organic and believable. They are also believably motivated: their loyalty to one another—against the rest of the world—feels authentic, and their self-reliance speaks of both their neglect by, and mistrust of, any outside authority figures. Boyega is fantastic as the leader of the gang, and gives a surprisingly layered performance, in addition to having a naturally magnetic screen presence: he's definitely an actor to watch.
Equally good is Whittaker (almost unrecognizable here from Venus, which is where most American audiences will have seen her before). Once the monsters start chomping, Sam has to forge an uneasy alliance with her former assailants, and Whittaker never loses sight of either her wariness or her sympathy: the mugging is never truly forgotten or forgiven, and she's afraid of the kids even as she's afraid for them. Cornish also fills the estate with fascinating and amusing supporting characters, including Ron (Nick Frost), a lackadaisical pot dealer; Brewis (Luke Treadaway), a smart college student who picked the wrong night to score some weed; and two 9-year-old wannabe thugs who demand to be called "Probs" (Sammy Williams) and "Mayhem" (Michael Ajao), who steal every scene they're in.
Attack the Block walks a fine line in regard to its genre, but it walks that line brilliantly; it is organically funny without straining too hard to be a comedy, and it is scary without descending too far into the manufactured tropes of horror. It also has some social commentary to make about class stratification and gentrification, but never in a heavy-handed way, and with no simplistic, condescending solutions. ("They're my neighbors," Sam says of the boys, towards the end of the movie, and that's about as close as we get to an expression of community togetherness.) It's tempting to come up with genre-mash descriptions—it's The Wire meets Gremlins, or Super 8 as directed by Mike Leigh—but that would be doing a disservice to Attack the Block, a naturalistic sci-fi film that mixes high-concept with neo-realist to create an organically exciting action movie in an authentically realized world. Deceptively modest in scale, but ambitiously precise in execution, Joe Cornish has taken stock ingredients and created something smart, fun, and wholly unique.