Dir. Joe Cornish. UK. France. 2011.

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Saving the council estate from aliens

In this engaging action-horror-science fiction movie set in a desolate part of South London, in Brixton, a fledgling hospital nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is mugged on her way home by teenage thugs. But this isn't her story. It belongs to the teenagers, who turn from toughs to urban heroes, and Sam becomes their ally. The fortress-like council block where she and the boys all live comes under attack by extra-terrestrials. Attack the Block, directed by British comedian-turned-film-maker and writer Joe Cornish, is a first film that's unique and fresh in many ways. It doesn't have the action payoffs it might, but it's scary and, despite seeming humorous at times, surprisingly real. And it's also good looking, socially alert, and constantly inventive.

You don't even know Attack the Block is a sci-fi flick at first. It seems more like Matthieu Kassovitz's Hate -- a saga of angry and at risk ghetto teenagers. It's close to some other French Banlieu movies such as Jean-François Richet's Ma 6-T va craquer and District B13, where locals defend their ghetto turf against rival gangs or cops. There are rivals here, and of course cops, who are aliens in their own way, and are called "the Feds" by the boys. One of the crew, Pest (Alex Esmail), likes to try Parkour, the art of jumping around on urban sites that's practiced in Richet's films. This has an ear and an eye for the urban underclass, whose members are mostly non-white. But more importantly coming in the American summer, it's the kind of movie J.J. Abrams' Super 8 might have been: it pits teenagers against alien monsters, but unlike the CGI-ridden Super 8, standard-issue monsters and noisy special effects never take over (though three is CGI here and it's very successful). The kids are seen in depth and remain at center stage throughout. The danger and terror stay at their level. And these youths are English, or course, not French or American, and speak in their own friendly patois.

Pest, Moses (John Boyega) and their mates Dennis (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones) and Biggz (Simon Howard) have firecrackers and small rockets. It's Bonfire Night and ironically a big fireworks display in the other, posher, London conceals the arrival of the aliens. The boys' robbery of Sam is deprived of its drama when an alien falls from the sky and crashes through the roof of a parked car.

The critter Moses kills and carries off, hoping to exhibit the carcass and sell it on eBay, looks like "a monkey fucked a fish." But the monsters that subsequently multiply in the area are all super-black and hairy, like monstrous wild boars with fluorescent teeth that can scurry and climb up walls. They resemble the creature with the glowing eyes in Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee, except they have no eyes and they're much more lively. They're otherwise original creations quite unlike the unoriginal aliens found in recent American films. They seem to be blind and go by smell. They may have landed in the wrong place, like the mistreated aliens in District 9. There's an explanation for why they've stayed, which is thought up by Brewis (Luke Treadaway), a stoner who occasionally deals dope for Ron (Nick Frost of Shaun of the Dead and many other films), whose Weed Room dominates his flat on the block's 19th floor. Brewis is a stoned yuppie who pathetically affects ghetto lingo, but like Sam he becomes the boys' ally against the monsters who besiege the building. Brewis proves his usefulness by figuring out why the aliens are pursuing them in particular.

But the hero is Boyega's Moses, whom African American film critic Armond White identifies as a "a young Denzel type, bursting with hormones, anger and a great smile," who "wears an alien carcass on his back and goes into battle with a mythological warrior's fearlessness." His nickname is Ninja. (The boys often have to point out to each other that what's happening is real and not a computer game. Some of them would much rather be at home playing one.) Moses' rival and opposite is the drug dealer, Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) whom Ron answers to. He's as bold as Moses but not as wily. And there are a couple of pre-teen cyclists whom the bigger boys don't allow to join them but show moxie of their own. White enthuses that in his view this is the first time since Walter Hill's The Warriors and Blaxploitation movies of the Seventies that he's seen a film so "saturated in the commonplace details of underclass anxiety, violent teen energy and aggression."

Naturally then there are girls too, and there's omnipresent music that is organic. Sometimes the characters burst into song. Brewis is always wound up in his MP3 player. For the others, rap is a living expression of their vibe. As Stephanie Scaife of the UK site "Eat Sleep Live Film" points out, Attack the Block is part of a current run of great first films by Brits that includes Monsters (Gareth Edwards), Submarine (Richard Ayode) and the forthcoming Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine). And the strength lies in the young actors, who are all authentic locals. Their dialect may be a bit thick for a Yank to penetrate at times, but the payoff in authenticity, humor, and a sense of camaraderie is huge.

As for the "Feds," they're caught up in Bonfire Night, and though they initially handcuff Moses when Sam fingers him, they show little interest in or perception of the aliens.

It's valid to say as Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian does that while this follows a classic alien siege model there's "something very innocent and English" about Attack of the Block, "reminiscent of the 1947 Ealing comedy Hue and Cry." This movie is very English. But it's universally entertaining, and blessedly free of the deadening American blockbuster template. Stephanie Scaife points out other firsts here: first feature film (and a terrific-looking one) for cinematographer Thomas Townend (who previously worked mostly on short films and in TV), first film score by Steven Price and Basement Jaxx, not to mention that "most of the young actors are unknowns plucked off the streets of South London." The involvement of Joe Cornish and Nick Frost, on the other hand, gives the movie a pedigree linking it to the successes of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, including Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. But the ear for the lingo and sensitivity toward ghetto youth is especially Cornish's here.

Attack the Block (90min) debuted at the SXSW Festival in Austin, opened May 13, 2011 in the UK and July 29 in the US.

Chris Knipp

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Chris Knipp

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