What I liked about “Attack the Block” was that it was happy to have fun within it's genre without making fun of the genre itself. “Shaun of the Dead” (which was from the same producers) for example, was a parody of Zombie movies, kidding them right up to the Zombie-bludgeoning-set-to-Queen-dance-number. “Attack the Block” is a funny movie about a very serious alien invasion. It’s a slight difference, but it changes everything.
We open in the ghetto of London as a woman walks home from work late at night, and is promptly mugged by a bunch of teenage thugs, lead by Moses (John Boyega). Right as things get uncomfortable for the audience, a comet wallops into a nearby car, we remember this is a horror movie, and we’re off to the races as the aliens attack the ghetto and the thugs take a stand.
This is essentially a run from the werewolves film. The aliens take the form of angry dog like creatures whose teeth glow neon green. If the aliens were sentient, or had incredible technology or weapons, I wouldn’t have bought the movie for a second. The fact that the aliens are essentially big dumb animals goes a long way to letting us believe the characters have an actual fighting chance. Also it helps that these kids are portrayed as pretty hardened, inner-city, thugs. they mug folk. They’re not nice. They own weapons. But, oddly, they mean well.
The cast deserves incredible kudos. Nick Frost is the known entity here, but he's really in a supporting role. He's probably in the movie so it can have a "name" actor, and it's a good enough reason for me. The reminder of the cast is varied and talented, and they all fill typically cliched roles with zeal and charm. John Boyega's performance as Moses is stoic and charismatic, and he strikes me as someone with the bad-ass factor of 50 cent and screen presence of an actual actor.
It would have been very easy for these characters to start out as thugs, and by the end of the film become nice kids who realize the error of their ways. But doesn’t.
By earning our interest in the characters through great acting, we actually care for them when they’re put in typically cliched horror-movie-style situations. You know them: frantically waiting for an elevator as a monster powers through a door, cutting to a reverse shot of a character to reveal there are several angry monsters about to eat his face, using tools from home to fend off an impending threat. You could play horror movie cliche bingo to the film if you wanted to, but it's so much fun, you won't.
There isn’t really anything *new* here formula wise, but there is originality and wit and fun in the script. I like how one character inexplicably had a katana, and I liked that there were two foul mouthed 10 year old kids running around with a super-soaker filled with...well, I’ll leave that surprise to the film, but it's not pee.
Director Joe Cornish walks the action / comedy / horror tightrope with ease. There are no scenes like the one I mentioned, where the entire reality of the film breaks down because of a joke or a hokey moment. This is frankly amazing for a low budget horror film with really only one name actor.
But where he really makes his mark is in the style. If he was auditioning to direct the sequel to "The Dark Knight Rises" after Christopher Nolan steps down, I'd say give him the job. Things are gritty and sweaty and pretty much everyone is "Die Hard" dirty* in the best way possible. The creatures are decapitated with glee, and the goriest of moments are triumphs of practical special effects, fantastic sound design, and editing. People jump in their seats.
There are many other winks and nudges that will bring a smile to the face of fans of the genre. It's far too easy for a single joke to ruin a film that otherwise takes itself serious. especially this kind of film that is attempting to be legitimately funny and scary at the same time.
For example, when "Hancock" came out a few years ago, it was billed as a typical will smith action comedy. But at one point during the flick, Hancock literally shoves one person's butt up another person's butt, promptly defying all laws of physics and turning the movie a complete farce. So, when the big climatic ending came, Will Smith desperately throwing himself out of the hospital and out into the rain to save his wife from a past life, I couldn't help but think "Didn't he just have his hands up a guy's butt 45 minutes ago?"
Director Joe Cornish is also careful to remind us this isn't a fairytale. “Attack the Block” makes very few apologies for lifestyle it presents. The same punk kids who mug a poor nurse at knife point are pretty much the same punk kids we're rooting for at the end of the movie, give or take a leg or nose, but the fact that we want them to actually live is to be praised. People go to horror movies these days to see people die terribly. "Attack The Block" scares us because we don't want anyone too.
Moses even goes as far as to say and believe that the attacking wolf alien things were sent by the government to kill black folk in the ghetto because the drugs and guns they sent first didn't do the job. What a subversive point to make in an otherwise mainstream film.
But here I am thinking too much about a movie that thinks a bit more than you’d expect. “Attack The Block” is a blast and a testament to good horror done right. This is fun. It’s the kind of movie that’s to be played for years to come, at midnight, at a local theater, where giddy audiences drunkenly throw popcorn in the air, while the girls cling to the closest friendly arm, gleefully whispering through half closed that they can't take it anymore, but have to know what happens next.
*Die Hard Dirty: The kind of dirty Bruce Willis gets in the "Die Hard" films, where he appears covered in blood and dirt, but we're never quite sure where it came from.