Forgoing the rural Kansas of a Critters or the suburban everyscape of an E.T., Writer-director Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block opts for the rough streets of South London as ground zero for his “aliens are falling from the sky, but only little Timmy knows!” creature feature. Along with the welcome change in locale comes a whip-smart comedic sensibility and an admirable willingness to invest the characters with something like moral depth.
Best known across the pond as the co-host of the sketch program The Adam and Joe Show, Cornish is probably destined to become even more well known for his script work on the forthcoming TinTin and Ant Man films with Edgar Wright, who executive produces here. While longtime Wright collaborator Nick Frost has a small but hilarious turn as a neighborhood weed slinger, the biggest story about the cast is its slew of first-time child actors, led by John Boyega.
Inspired by Cornish’s actual mugging at the hands of local hooligans, the film opens with Boyega’s Moses orchestrating a late-night knifepoint stickup of a young local nurse, charmingly played by Jodie Whittaker. It doesn’t take long for the residents’ minds to become occupied by more serious concerns, however, as a series of meteor impacts evolves into a full-blown alien invasion of the neighborhood.
Add a couple of antagonists in the persons of angry cops and a drug kingpin out for revenge – each with a habit of turning up at the most inconvenient of times – and the result is an actioner that never lacks for human conflict. Only a handful of cheap screenwriting tricks occasionally telegraph their resolutions in advance. When a character in your first act brags to his friends that he could make a parkour-esque leap across a stairwell if he really wanted to, but demurs, it is basically an aesthetic impossibility for that character not to be chased by monsters in a later scene and attempt that precise leap. Will the precocious preteens pestering Moses who “just want to be part of your gang” end up proving their value in your darkest hour? What do you think?
Made for around US $14 million, the special effects here don’t make a virtue out of necessity so much as they make a necessity out of their virtue: the monsters are instantiated by practical effects, only lightly rotoscoped in post to remove detail for an otherworldly appearance. As a result, they look like they’re in the same space as the actors because they goddamn well are in the same space as the actors. The sense of threat that someone’s leg might get bitten off is much easier to maintain when the jaws are actual physical objects for actual humans to react to.
Like the eventual explanation for their rampage, the simplicity and directness of the monsters’ rendition serve as a microcosm for everything that’s right about this movie. In a summer of cartoonish 9-figure blockbusters, you don’t have to be larger than life. Being right around the same size as life can work even better.