Why is it that aliens always invade New York? Or Los Angeles? How come it’s always the Americans taking on extraterrestrial threats, armed with big guns, ripped shirts, and catchy one-liners?
Gotta admit: those stories are old and tired. Been there, done that, seen the post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Which makes Attack the Block a refreshing change of pace. This time, we’re treated to space invaders in London—and not the tourist-filled, upper-class London with posh accents and Austen manners.
No, this is the council estate of South London. Where youth gangs run amok. Where Cockney slang can sometimes be indecipherable. Where you’re more likely to see knives and baseball bats than Aston Martins.
This is the rough part of London, and the aliens might regret messing with these locals.
Sam (Jodie Whittaker) has just gotten off her shift at the hospital and is walking home through the Block. She’s about to have one of the worst nights in her life. First, she’s mugged by a gang of threatening youths led by the gruff Moses (John Boyega). If that wasn’t enough, something suddenly falls out of the sky, destroying a nearby parked car. Taking to her heels, Sam uses the distraction to make good her escape.
But rather than follow suit and flee the scene, Moses decides to check out the crushed car. “There might be something inside,” he tells his mates, and he ain’t wrong. But it’s not valuable goods they could pawn a street over; it’s a very angry creature that’s definitely not of this earth. When the thing scratches the teen, he and his crew give chase, successfully beating the thing to death.
It picked the wrong neighborhood for a crash-landing.
Riding high on their victory, the Crew heads back for home with their strange trophy in tow. Little knowing that the “Dobby”, as they dub it, won’t be the only monster to hit the Block.
While Sam gives the cops her statement, the Crew makes for Ron's flat. The block’s primary weed dealer, Ron (Nick Frost) has a reputation for being a guy in the know. They reckon that if anyone can tell them what the strange creature is, it’ll be Ron. They need a place to keep the thing, too, and everyone knows there’s no place safer than Ron’s weed room.
It’s also where Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), a real bad news thug, runs his business. He tells Moses it’s time to move up into the big leagues. Hi-Hatz isn’t exactly someone you can say no to, so while the rest of the Crew is in the next room chatting with uni student Brewis (Luke Treadaway), Moses agrees to be one of his dealers.
No sooner is the dope in his sock before the Crew sees it’s “raining Gollums”. That’s no firework show—it’s an alien invasion. Eager for more action, they all arm up and head back out to the park. Unfortunately this round of nasties isn’t going to be as easy to handle as the first “Dobby”. Unlike the small, hairless thing they just stomped to death, these are some “big alien gorilla wolf motherf*ckers”, in the words of the eloquent Pest (Alex Esmail).
In most alien movies, the invaders have looked either like the Greys described in traditional abduction accounts or vicious, acid-dripping insects. But the monsters of Attack the Block are wholly unique: built like hump-backed bears with spiked fur so black it seems to absorb light, no visible eyes, and rows of serrated teeth that glow neon blue. Their shrieks have a supersonic whine to them—they’re one of the coolest-looking alien species I’ve ever seen and they absolutely do not come in peace.
Realizing they’re out-matched, the Crew flees, only to cross paths with the cops. Moses ends up snatched, the cops don’t enjoy their close encounter of the third kind, and the teens and Sam come face to face for the second time that night. As loathe as she is to trust the youths who previously attacked her, it becomes clear that they’ll have to work together to survive the invasion.
What follows is a night of madness, blood, pop culture references, and cutting class commentary. Yes, Moses and the Crew are rough elements. But they’re also still kids, living in poverty and struggling to survive in a cutthroat neighborhood full of crime. They’ve always done what they have to to maintain their cred.
And who better to face a violent alien menace than a streetwise gang? It’s great seeing a bunch of black teenagers cast as the heroes. In many other movies, they’d be villains taking advantage of the situation. John Boyega’s Moses is the real standout, strong and intimidating, a smart leader, but younger and more vulnerable than he seems.
It’s a layered performance made even more impressive when you know this was his first role. I’ve long been crossing my fingers that Boyega would find mainstream success and was over the moon when I heard he’d won a role in the upcoming Star Wars. He’s definitely a rising actor to keep an eye on.
Attack the Block is sharp, well-crafted, and full of clever nods to sci-fi and horror. The streets of the Block are all named after famous writers—(Arthur C.) Clarke, (Alan) Moore, (Aldous) Huxley, and (H.G.) Wells—and the tower itself, Wyndham, references John Wyndham, best known for the British cult classic The Day of the Triffids. The characters are forced to move up floors after every encounter, like players in a video game. And even though most of the cast are kids, this isn’t The Goonies; there’s plenty of bloodshed and some pretty horrific gore. Not everyone makes it to the end credits.
This is also one of the most quotable alien flicks, though I’d recommend turning on the closed captioning for the first watch, since the constant slang and thick accents might be difficult to follow if you’re not already familiar with British cinema. With the electronic band Basement Jaxx providing the otherworldly soundtrack and some superb use of lighting, there’s a wicked ambience that remains modern and urban without sacrificing the scifi vibe.
All in all, this is a little film with a big punch. A lot’s packed into a mere hour and a half run time, and first-time director/writer Joe Cornish pulls off an impressive coup de grâce. Before you see John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, check him out in his stellar debut.
If you like: Doctor Who and Torchwood, but want a bit more blood, profanity, and social commentary.
Why you should watch it: Where else will you see black inner-city youths take on the coolest-looking aliens since Alien?
Favorite moment(s): The fight in the girls’ apartment; when Moses leads the monsters.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.