Attack the Block: Joe Cornish’s Actioner, Starring Jodie Whittaker and John Boyega

Attack the Block may be an anomaly, a summer action movie that feels fresh, rather than by-the-book formulaic entertainment.

Joe Cornish’s movie makes a compelling companion piece to “Super 8,” as they are both about teenagers battling aliens on their home turf.  But “Attack the Block” makes J. J. Abrams’s admirable film look a tad too carefully pre-planned.

It all comes down to the kids, doesn’t it? The fantastic young actors in “Attack the Block”—especially brooding John Boyega as the fifteen-year-old hero, Moses—make the “Super 8” kids look much too precious.

Cornish reminds us that it doesn’t take a huge budget, a slew of special effects, and a lot of overthinking to make a thrilling and moving summer entertainment that can potentially sell tons of popcorn. Even with a simple premise, all you need are the characters, the script, and the editing (in this case, a bang-up job by Jonathan Amos).

Moses and his gang are, when we first meet them, nowhere near being good guys. In a sharply cut opening sequence that wastes no time setting things in motion, the kids heartlessly mug one of their neighbors and kill the first of many aliens they will fight. The action occurs on this, most eventful night around their tower block, Wyndham House in South London.

Boys will be boys, of course. Rather than take the alien’s orangutan-like corpse to the authorities, they go find their would-be girlfriends to show off their catch. But more aliens are soon on their way, and these are a few sizes bigger than their first kill.

Having seen so many overcooked aliens this summer—from “Super 8” to “Cowboys & Aliens,” not to mention “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”—Cornish’s much simpler space gorilla-wolves with blue glowing jaws are something of a relief.  Isn’t all we ask of our aliens that they actually be scary? Do we really need our aliens to always the CGI art project of a craftsman?

Undergirding the action in “Attack the Block” is a strong sense of societal breakdown. These kids are yet another generation facing “no future in England’s dreaming,” as Johnny Rotten sang more than thirty years ago. What future, for instance, does Moses have other than drug dealing? While the suspense centers on how these young men are going to survive the alien incursion, we also cannot help but wonder how they are ever going to survive their own neighborhood.

Moses has a telling little speech during a brief lull in the action, in which he shares his theory of where the aliens have come from: the government created them and sent them into the hood to wipe out the people—the same way, he says, that the feds made sure that crack would decimate this community. Funny on the surface, there is poignancy to Moses’s summation because we can know by this point why he would not see it any other way.

Near the end of the film, Cornish indulges in a sweet bit of symbolism with Moses and the Union Jack. Is it Moses who needs England or, more likely, is it the other way around?

We see Moses’s attitude shift gradually over the film, although it might be more accurate to say we start to see the real kid, not the thug pretender, coming through. When his stern expression—a mask, really—finally gives way, we realize how successful this film has been at pulling us in, making us care about Moses and company, and engaging our emotions. And to boot, this is all in the context of some serious alien ass kicking.

Again, all the young actors are well cast in this film, not just Boyega. Cornish does not spend much time giving us their back stories, but each glimpse we get into their home lives (mostly through calls to their moms or short visits to their apartments) offers us just enough to connect with each kid.

Cornish is not afraid to have some of the boys killed off—even some of the coolest ones—which adds to the film’s high stakes. We are convinced that these kids’ lives are at risk, in more ways than one.

Cast

Jodie Whittaker – Sam

John Boyega – Moses

Alex Esmail – Pest

Franz Drameh – Dennis

Leeon Jones – Jerome

Simon Howard – Biggz

Luke Treadaway – Brewis

Jumayn Hunter – Hi-Hatz

Nick Frost – Ron

Credits

A Screen Gems release.

Directed and written by Joe Cornish.

Produced by Nira Park and James Wilson.

Cinematography, Thomas Townend.

Editing, Jonathan Amos.

Original Music, Basement Jaxx and Steven Price.

Running time: 88 minutes.