ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011) (****)
Joe Cornish's film begins with a group of teens, predominately black, mugging a white woman. Then they witness something fall from the sky and when they go to investigate are attacked by a horrible alien creature. In a lesser film like this one, those black kids would be dead before the title card popped up. But that's not what happens in Cornish's spitfire horror sci-fi comedy. You know right from the start that this film is working on a different level.
Moses (John Boyega) is the de facto leader of this gang. An intimidating looking 15-year-old who looks a lot older than he is. The woman they rob is Sam (Jodie Whittaker, VENUS), a nurse who lives in the same poor neighborhood as the boys. During this fateful night, it will not be the only time their paths cross. More aliens are coming and the teens decide they need to defend their block.
Cornish does an excellent job of setting up what is a relatively simple idea and fill it with compelling characters and a convincing dramatic build. If the aliens weren't enough, Moses and his friends have to contend with the drug dealer Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter, EDEN LAKE), who makes it clear that he owns the block. There is a moment when the audience truly wonders if he is a bigger threat than the aliens. And lets speak of these aliens. They're blind and have glowing teeth. As one of the teens describes them, they're blacker than his cousin. We don't know his cousin, but we know these aliens and they are so black that they are like negative space on the screen. Running shadows. They are frightening.
As for the comedy, the film milks the banter between the teens. Pest (Alex Esmail) is the white kid in the group and has a mouth on him. Most everything that comes out of it is hilarious. Jerome (Leeon Jones) seems to be the least thuggish of the group. In one mind-boggling moment, he frets over having only one text left on his pre-paid phone, because there is no way he can fit the mayhem going on in a single text. Biggz (Simon Howard) fashions himself a parkour artist, but he ends up trapped in a trash bin for a good deal of the flick. Dennis (Franz Drameh, HEREAFTER) wants revenge on the aliens for what they did to his dog. His weapons are a scooter and a samurai sword. Dimples (Paige Meade) is the sassy leader in a pack of girls the boys want to get with. Working for Hi-Hatz is the harmless stoned loser Ron (Nick Frost, SHAUN OF THE DEAD). Also getting wrapped up in the craziness is the nervous prep school kid Brewis (Luke Treadaway, CLASH OF THE TITANS), who just came to the block to score some pot. Oh, and you can't leave out the two younger kids trying to act tough like the older kids. They want to be known as Probs (Sammy Williams) and Mayhem (Michael Ajao).
Despite its sci-fi premise, Cornish makes the film believable from the beginning. He understands his characters and their world. They might be muggers, but they are still kids. Note the excitement they get when they bound out to take on the aliens… and then their real fear once they see that second round of invaders are far nastier than the first. Moses gets congrats from his mates when Hi-Hatz asks him to start dealing for him. But as he will learn there are consequences for all his actions. His interaction with Sam, whose medical skills are needed when the aliens sink their teeth in, gives him perspective, as do we.
As for the action, he doesn't make these kids superheroes. He even has the foresight to set up a simple action moments before hand. A quick moment with Biggz early on shows the group's friendship then it pays off later as a nice tension builder. And if that's not enough, Cornish adds in a twist for a laugh. It's a perfect example of how every piece of the film is intricately thought out. When it comes to the bigger issue of the aliens, Cornish connects it to the story of his characters. The external becomes internal in the end and it all builds to a "get up and cheer" climax.
Mixing horror and comedy in equal measure, the fact that the film is as scary as it is funny is impressive. Whether the film finds its audience in theaters or in a home entertainment format, it will become a cult classic.