Saturday, October 27, 2012

Attack the Block

I didn't have high of hopes for Attack the Block (2011). For one thing, the concept sounds like obvious schtick - outer space versus the inner city - and the DVD cover brought to mind the rather weak The Watch starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn that came out earlier this year or some other low-rent Men in Black ripoff. Thankfully, Attack the Block manages to succeed as a mostly serious sci-action thriller with humor that doesn't feel forced and characters that actually behave like real people instead of goofy stereotypes.

Set in London, Attack the Block opens on Bonfire Night when a gang of teenagers - leader Moses (John Boyega), Pest (Alex Esmail), Jerome (Leeon Jones), Dennis (Franz Drameh), and Biggz (Simon Howard) - mug a nurse, Sam (Jodie Whittaker).  Something then falls out of the sky, which turns out to be an alien creature the boys chase and kill. They parade the alien around and take it to drug dealer Ron (Nick Frost) for safekeeping, but before long, more aliens start appearing, only these beasts are bigger and nastier than the first, and the group must fight and flee to stay alive.

Written and directed by Joe Cornish, Attack the Block avoids the temptation to condescend and mock the material, and instead, it's played mostly straight. The aliens aren't too complicated, essentially just big, black, furry bear-like creatures with glowing blue fangs and no eyes, but they work. Most of them appear to computer-generated, but Cornish doesn't over expose them. There are a lot of chase scenes in which we only catch glimpses of the aliens or only see them from across a great distance, so they were never glaringly fake. Up close, they get pretty mean, ripping out throats and leaving behind bloody, bloody messes.

The humor comes organically from the character and also because the movie spends most of the first act teasing the boys' expectations. With the alien corpse, they think it's their ticket to fame and fortune and act the way you would expect a bunch of teenage boys who just found an alien would act. The movie also takes its time building to the actual alien invasion, allowing the boys to think they only have to deal with one alien, and when more arrive, they think it too will be a pushover. Are they in for a surprise.

There's also a fair degree of post-modern self-awareness that's pretty funny. One character notes that when word gets out about the invasion, London will be swarming with the army, tanks, helicopters, and all that "28 Days Later shit." When they are in danger, they don't discount and deflate the tension; they take the threat seriously, but they do get in some jokes. One character wants to alert someone else with his cellphone but only has enough charge left for one text, and he complains how trying to explain an alien invasion in one text might be a bit much. When the group winds up at Sam's apartment, she threatens to call the police, and Pest says she should probably call the Ghostbusters instead.

Attack the Block has some dwell-drawn characterization, at more than what you would expect in a genre film. Moses, the gang leader, begins the film as a thief, mugger, and soon-to-be drug dealer who, as the film unfolds, evolves into a strong, capable leader and protector. The others, too, get little moments to show they're more than simple monster movie fodder. Biggz, while hiding in a dumpster, calls his mother and without overplaying it, tells he loves her and will be good from now on. Pest gets a moment where he somewhat scolds Sam because her boyfriend, she says, is in Ghana helping children. "Why can't he help the children in Britain?" We even see these kids mourn their fallen friends. How often do you see that in an alien invasion movie?

The movie's not perfect. I didn't much care for the subplot involving two younger boys who want to join the gang and hunt aliens. They felt a little too obviously comical (although, admittedly, how that story line pays off is fun). It also takes a little while to figure who the main five characters are and to differentiate them' it's been difficult because often they're all wearing hoods and face coverings. And the movie is disappointingly vague about the invasion itself. Is it going on all over London? Are they attacking because of some pheromone on some people, out of revenge for the first creature's death, or were they going to invade all along? Are the police aware of what's going and covering up, or are they in the dark about the aliens?

Oh well, those sort of questions ultimately don't matter. At its most basic, Attack the Block is about a group of characters working together to survive an extraterrestrial threat, and it's much more exciting and well crafted than I expected. I expected a joke but got something much better.

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