In a summer full of overdone blockbusters (hello, Captain America?) and wan, airless independent films (The Future - urrgh), it's nice to find an old-fashioned low-budget genre film that overachieves.
The movie is Attack the Block, opening in limited release a week from today (7/29/11), and it's bracing in its simplicity and pure unalloyed adrenaline and wit. It's oh so basic in its set-up and story-telling - and yet writer-director Joe Cornish makes the absolute most out of its goosy energy and gruesome effects.
The plot is simple: On Guy Fawkes Day, as fireworks fill the London skies, a lone nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker) walks home from work to the housing project where she lives. But she's intercepted by a gang of toughs, who steal her purse and cell phone, then threaten her with a knife unless she gives up her ring.
Just as she's about to, however, something bright and speedy comes falling out of the sky and crashes into a parked car next to where they're all standing. Sam escapes; the toughs' scowling leader, Moses (newcomer John Boyega), starts rifling through the smashed auto for valuables - when he's attacked by whatever alien creature was inside the thing that crashed into the car.
When he stabs it, the creature escapes across a vacant lot into a utility shed. The cocky youngsters follow it in - and in a turnabout from the usual plotting of films like this, they emerge victorious, dragging the dead alien creature - about the size of a dog - after them. Figuring it might be worth money, they take it for safekeeping to the weed vault of the project's resident drug dealer, the short-tempered Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). But even as they're leaving it with him, they glance out the windows - and see a bombardment of the same sort of alien craft, all over their block.
The kids arm themselves with fireworks, baseball bats, knives - even a samurai sword - and decide to go alien hunting. But they realize quickly that these aliens are larger, meaner and deadlier than the one they killed - and the aliens are after them.
What follows is an entertaining blend of horror movie, action film and urban comedy, as the same group of thugs who began the film as the movie's villains turn into its heroes - and even team up with a reticent and feisty Sam to try to warn their neighborhood about the danger. But they have to stay one step ahead of the black-furred and eyeless aliens, who lumber like bears with the speed of wolves and whose snapping maws contain multiple rows of phosphorescently purple teeth.
Cornish mines enough comedy with his action and scares to keep you off-balance, with a self-assurance that's delightful. His cast of youngsters - newcomers except Whittaker, who held her own opposite Peter O'Toole in Venus - are fresh and believable, with a smart-mouthed way with a one-liner. Boyega is compellingly sullen as Moses, while Alex Esmail steals every scene he's in as Moses' jabbering sidekick, Pest.
Attack the Block is snappy and confident, funny and exciting - an alien space-horror comedy that will engage even those who think they're beyond this sort of thing.
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