I briefly—very briefly—questioned whether first-time feature filmmaker Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block was really five-star material. But considering that I had as much or more fun with the film as I’ve had with anything this year, and because there’s more here than meets the eye, I decided that anything other than five stars would be brazenly dishonest. I’m not alone: 115 good reviews versus 14 bad ones on Rotten Tomatoes, more than slightly rare for a genre effort. And truly, there isn’t a single thing I would change about the film’s brisk 88-minute running time.
The film is being promoted on the strength of its connection (on the producing side) to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and on the presence of Nick Frost as Ron, the stoned doorkeeper for a South London drug dealer. The truth is that Frost’s is a supporting role and the film is mostly given over to a teenage gang—headed up by newcomer John Boyega as Moses—and a fresh-out-of-school nurse, Sam (Jodie Whittaker, Venus), who goes from being their mugging victim to their comrade in arms against an alien invasion. This would be a terrific film with or without Frost, though his presence certainly is a welcome one.
The plot is very straightforward: A gang of inner city youths are interrupted in the process of mugging Sam on her way home from work when something from the sky crashes into a car parked on the street next to them. Sam uses this diversion to beat a hasty retreat, leaving the gang to investigate the car, which turns out now to have something alive and unpleasant in it. When the creature in question scratches Moses’ face (and injures his manliness by scaring him), it’s decided to track the thing down and kill it, which they do, though no one can quite figure out what the nasty-looking thing is. (This doesn’t keep them from parading it around like some apparently smelly trophy.) But what it portends is something else, something worse, and something that attacks the council-flat block (the Brit version of projects) in which they—and Sam—live.
For reasons they don’t figure out till late in the film, the second wave of monsters—accurately, if vaguely, described as “gorilla-wolf-looking motherf***ers”—seem to be very specifically after them. Quite by accident (it’s an any-port-in-a-storm affair), the gang members end up in Sam’s apartment and find themselves uneasy allies with their previous victim. Some people have objected to this whole aspect of the film as romanticizing or excusing the hooliganism they evidence. That, I think, misses the point. Sam neither immediately believes them, nor does she bond with them—nor is she impressed by the idea that they wouldn’t have mugged her had they known she lived in their building.
What she slowly comes to see—brought home with force and sad charm when she sees Moses’ bedroom—is that these hooligans are little more than children. They’re dangerous—at least potentially—but they are clearly kids (and there’s a pair of younger thug wanna-bes coming right behind them). This isn’t beaten into the ground—nor is the fact that these Brit kids are posers adopting a vague idea of American pop culture (specifically rap)—but it’s always there, just beneath the surface. It’s just not allowed to get in the way of the film’s sci-fi horror-comedy central story. It does, however, deepen it.
The truth is that Attack the Block is a terrific thriller (especially once you realize that all of the characters are at risk and even likable ones can die), as well as splattery horror film, blessed with a marvelously snarky sense of humor. It’s also beautifully acted, and boasts the coolest, simplest and most unsettling monsters in years. (The fact that we’re presented with a lot of the aliens, yet never really make them out in their almost absorbent blackness, is close to genius.) Yes, you may have to already like this kind of film—and even then, it might take a little work to decipher the accents and the slang—but if you do, there’s nothing around that can touch it. It’s a brilliantly original work from a new filmmaker with genuine style and vision. We don’t get that every day, or even every year. Don’t miss it—and don’t miss it on the big screen. It deserves to be seen there. Rated R for creature violence, drug content and pervasive language.