The British movie Attack the Block is so good, it puts almost all other movies to shame. It's a fantastic action flick. It's a brilliant character study. It's an uproarious comedy. Oh yeah... and it's a well-done science fiction story.
When I finished watching Attack the Block, all I wanted to do was go back and watch it a second time. I probably would have, if I hadn't been at a preview screening with no second showing. You owe it to yourself to watch Attack the Block, which hits select U.S. theaters today. The only downside of seeing it is that you'll be painfully aware of how far other films fall short.
So you've probably heard Attack the Block described as an alien invasion movie set in the British housing projects. From that description, you'd probably assume that it's a Battle: Los Angeles type deal, where the aliens are randomly attacking everywhere and we just see one small group dealing with the fallout. That's not what this movie is like, at all — but it would be too huge a spoiler to explain how it's different. Just know that Attack the Block is a lot cleverer than Battle: LA or other similar movies.
What makes Attack the Block so great is that its characters are bound up with its story, and neither one is sacrificed on the altar of plot. The setting is not a backdrop, it's a real setting. When the situation keeps escalating towards the end of the movie, and things get more and more dire for our heroes, there's a logical reason for it, and the increasingly scary situation goes to the heart of the characters and what they're about. Every Hollywood screenwriter should be tied to a chair and forced to watch this.
When Attack the Block begins, we see a woman, Sam, getting mugged. She's immediately ultra-sympathetic: a nurse who's working long hours caring for sick people, talking on the phone to her mother. Her muggers are immediately unsympathetic, a group of local hoodlums who are preying on vulnerable people. And then, in the middle of the mugging, a meteor crashes out of the sky and destroys a nearby car. Something... alien gets out of the wreckage and runs away, with the young thugs in pursuit.
Here's the great scene where Moses and his teen gang take on the crashed alien:
For the rest of the movie we follow Moses (John Boyega) and the rest of his young comrades as they deal with the fallout from their alien encounter. And we keep revisiting the mugging that happened at the start of the film — both because it spawns ripples of consequences for Moses and the others, and because we keep remeeting the mugging victim, Sam (Jodie Whittaker).
Most movies in this vein would use the mugging at the start of the movie as a character-establishing bit, and then sweep it under the rug. Who cares if these guys took Sam's purse and her sentimentally-valuable ring, when there are tons of alien monsters coming out of the darkness and trying to tear everybody apart? And yet, as Sam and the kids who mugged her get thrown together as they're hunted over and over by terrifying aliens, we keep coming back to the mugging again and again, as the mugger and muggee are forced to understand each other.
And meanwhile, Moses manages to get on the wrong side of the cops, as well as an evil drug kingpin, and everybody's out to get him — while the alien monsters get more and more relentless as well.
This movie handles shifts in tone — between real character interactions, insane humor, and piss-your-pants terror — with amazing deftness. Just check out this clip, where Sam is helping to patch up one of the kids, and then an alien monster shows up:
I love the line, "Trust me, this has got nothing to do with gangs. Or drugs. Or rap music. Or violence in video games."
And yes, the movie is insanely funny at times — especially any time Nick Frost and Luke Treadaway, as a scuzzy drug dealer and his best client, are on screen. Treadaway plays Brewis, a kid from a wealthy background who's basically slumming it in the block, and his biggest fear is what his daddy will say if he gets busted. Nick Frost is at his absolute funniest, as a laid-back drug dealer who's sort of nonplussed by the teenagers running around and battling aliens in his midst. There are also some hilarious supporting characters, including a pair of too-young-for-primetime thugs named Probs and Mayhem, who keep wanting to prove that they're badass, armed only with a super-soaker and a toy gun.
The soundtrack, featuring loads of Basement Jaxx's spiky sound, perfectly compliments the feeling of an enclosed urban environment, which is its own world. The block isn't just a council estate (or housing project, for Americans) — it's a self-enclosed world in which the police and the authorities and the normal rules don't quite apply. The Block, with its weird pale lighting and claustrophobic elevators, is sort of the ultimate urban deathtrap as well as a self-contained neighborhood where people take care of each other.
Depending on who you are, the Block is a shithole where it's not safe to walk at night, or it's a place to walk on the wild side — or it's just home. The meanings of the Block, and what it signifies when the Block gets invaded by alien marauders, keep changing depending on whose point of view you get. Even as you get a deeper understanding of the characters in the movie, you also start to understand why the Block is special.
And did I mention there's awesome samurai-sword-swinging carnage? Here's a featurette about Dennis, the kid who's always ready to take a katana to an alien monster:
And the aliens in the film aren't just a plot device, or standard-issue attacking monsters — they actually have a reason for doing what they do, which is handily explained by the over-educated stoner, Brewis. Once you learn the truth about the aliens, you suddenly see the whole movie in a different light, and it all becomes a much cooler story. The plot ties in with the alien life cycle, so that everyone in the movie is acting on instincts and unexamined drives, including the aliens.
The reason why the aliens keep hunting Moses and his friends turns out to have to do with a basic alien biological drive — and it's all Moses' fault, in some sense. He has to face up to what he's done, and take responsibility. Like a lot of the rest of the character development in the film, it's very much underplayed, but only becomes more powerful as a result.
In some ways, Attack the Block is your standard coming-of-age story in which the monsters force Moses to evaluate who he is, and what he's about, as he grows into being a true hero. But at the same time as Moses is coming to understand the alien monsters, we're growing to understand him, and the scene where Sam goes into Moses' bedroom towards the end of the movie and suddenly we see Moses in a whole different light, is one of the most perfectly startling, amazing moments I've seen lately.
By the end of the movie, you will be cheering for Moses — and incredibly pumped up in general about this rare example of an action movie that's actually genuinely funny and full of terrifying, thrilling moments. This movie is something special, and you owe it to yourself to go see it. And the second time you watch it, make sure you drag all of your friends along. This film is that good.