The rare invasion flick that has something to say about who's being invaded
In today’s science fiction genre, perhaps more than ever, Earth has become the intergalactic Sandals, Jamaica. Somewhere, in a galaxy far, far away, an extraterrestrial travel agency must be hawking cheap package deals for Earth vacations, and aliens are jumping at the chance to visit and blow up our cities. Avatar saw humanity politely returning the favor, traveling across the stars to trash someone else’s apartment, but Battle: L.A., Skyline, Super 8, Cloverfield, Cowboys & Aliens, and Transformers, among others, have all followed in the blockbuster-sized footsteps of Independence Day, where mankind plays host to a wide cast of intergalactic, ill-tempered house guests. The invasion genre is old—but today’s crop seems primarily interested in bringing outer space critters here just for the fun of having Earthlings fend them off.
On the surface, Joe Cornish's Attack the Block, now in limited release in the U.S., does little to change this formula. Aliens, perhaps propelled to Earth by the film’s thrumming Basement Jaxx soundtrack, waste no time in falling from the sky and quickly get busy mutilating innocent bystanders. But hidden underneath the standard sci-fi fare is also a surprisingly affecting subplot that addresses not just aliens but the cycle of urban violence and how a whole community can suffer for the actions of a few.
As the camera descends on the gang of five friends, we find the heroes lurking in back alleys and side streets, searching for a suitable candidate for armed burglary. The opening instantly recalls The Wire, with its highly-kinetic, grooving dialogue that sucks the viewer in. By the time the opening credits fade, the audience already has a keen grasp of the group's hierarchy and personae. Whereas the mega-scale of many recent alien blockbusters often reduces characters to faceless ants scurrying between the legs of colossal invaders, Cornish’s cast of spunky South London youths is so magnetic that you may just leave the theater trying to pronounce everything in a cockney accent.
When the five hoodlums finally corner an unsuspecting nurse from their apartment block, their catch is interrupted by a flaming alien pod that blazes out of the sky and totals some poor chap's Honda. As the gang’s unsmiling leader, Moses (John Boyega), searches the wreckage, the pod's occupant—a kind of hairless, eyeless sloth—attacks Moses and scars his face before fleeing into a nearby playground. Incensed beyond reason, the gang pursues the alien with deadly intent. After they easily overpower the small creature, they take it back to the block where they proudly display their catch. Trouble arrives when the beast's bigger, meaner, toothier family shows up looking for their lost compatriots and start tearing through the titular concrete housing block. The boys, initially enthused at the prospect of more sloth brains to bash, “tool up” with firecrackers and baseball bats, and run hooting into the streets looking for trouble. But their bloodlust is quickly cooled when they encounter their new enemy, forcing them to flee back into the block. The remainder of the film is spent following the boys as they play high-tension hide and seek with their extra-terrestrial pursuers nipping at their bloodied heels, eventually taking refuge in the narcotics store room of the barely conscious but endearing stoner, Ron (Nick Frost of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead fame).
The creatures themselves are the star of the show here. Whereas the slim budget is felt in some action sequences that could use a little more pop, the “gorilla wolf motherfuckers” prove the value of a little imagination in monster design. Built like great apes without eyes or a nose, their forms are inky black, only becoming visible when they bare their glowing, neon-blue fangs—a trait used to great effect by Cornish in the dark alleys and poorly lit hallways of the south-London housing project.
Throughout all the running, panting and bloodletting, the film never loses sight of its primary lesson. As more and more block residents get chewed into mush, Moses realizes that it was his own reckless actions that brought the creatures and are causing those around him to suffer. The parallels to reality, where seemingly meaningless acts of crime bring more brutal law enforcement and increased poverty, are blunt but touching. It’s a refreshing change from rote alien-invasion flicks like Battle: L.A., where the “why” of the situation is never considered: Never mind what we might’ve done, they’re after our precious resources (which is always illogical, since all of Earth’s most valuable elements, water included, can be found in greater abundance on uninhabited planets). Moses, on the other hand, accepts responsibility and, in the end, chooses to shoulder the burden himself.
It’s a shame that Attack the Block is currently only being released in eight theaters in the U.S. Perhaps handicapped by its sometimes-indecipherable inner London slang, some American theatergoers might leave wondering just what it was they saw. That’s too bad, because it’s a rare thing in today’s movie climate when a hostile alien species tells us more about ourselves than just how many rounds we can fire in a minute.