Joe Cornish is a name many of you probably aren’t familiar with…yet. But this guy is poised on the edge of breakout status, and my hope is that in a few years, he’ll be drawing the same admiration and acclaim as his contemporary and sometimes-writing partner, Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). The duo co-wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s upcoming holiday release The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, and they have been working on a script for the lower-tier Marvel superhero Ant-Man for years now. Attack the Block marks Cornish’s feature directorial debut (he also wrote the movie), and with its kinetic pacing, solid character work, and genre-mashing sensibilities, the movie already seems destined to become a cult classic.
It opens in South London with a girl named Sam (Jodie Whittaker) getting mugged by a gang of teenage hoodlums, led by Moses (John Boyega). The mugging is interrupted when an alien smashes through a car roof nearby, and after the guys kill the creature and parade it back to their “block,” they soon realize the invasion isn’t limited to one creature – there are many more falling from the sky, and these are a lot bigger and meaner than the first one. Teaming up with Sam and a few potheads (one played by Edgar Wright staple Nick Frost), the gang must band together in order to survive both the invasion and the unstable antics of the perpetually pissed off psychotic local drug dealer Hi-Hatz.
Rarely have the genres of action, comedy, and science fiction combined to such rousing effect as in this movie. The script is blazingly quick-witted, tearing from chase scene to set piece with jokes peppered throughout and near-perfect comic timing. Every gag works, every action scene is both conceived and executed in terrific fashion, and the character moments are spectacular. Similar movies may feel predictable, but things actually matter here: characters you grow to love die thanks to the glow-in-the-dark fangs of the aliens, and since no one is off limits, it heightens the drama throughout. The montage sequences of the gang preparing for battle has Wright’s influence all over it, and the movie has a genuinely fun atmosphere even though these characters are enduring a horrifying situation.
Cornish used a cast comprised almost entirely of unknowns and they all work wonderfully together. They bounce their London slang off each other and practically finish each other’s sentences with a youthful exuberance and blustery bravado found in kids who think they’re gangsters, but are really just victims of a bad social situation. The colleague who got me into this screening (Drew McWeeny at HitFix – thanks Drew!) told me Cornish went through a four month casting search, and after he found everyone, he allowed the kids to essentially rewrite the dialogue into more natural language, mimicking the way they actually speak. That sensibility comes across brilliantly in the movie; the characters feel like real people instead of stock roles, and each one has his or her own defining characteristics. The accents may be a bit harsh at times, but there’s absolutely no reason to subtitle the movie if and when it gets U.S. distribution (as discussions have indicated since Attack the Block‘s SXSW Film Festival premiere).
Unfortunately, you read that correctly – this movie hits the UK on May 13th, 2011, but if you’re in the United States and you want to see it, you’re sadly out of luck. It’s shocking to me that distributors haven’t picked this up yet, because it’s a surefire cult classic that may not do gangbusters at the box office, but will make some serious cash in the home video market. I know I’ll be purchasing the Blu-ray and showing it to all of my friends; this is the type of movie that plays great to a crowd, and fans of science fiction, comedy, or even some of the old Amblin films will be in geek heaven.
Attack the Block is full of references to other films, but these aren’t nearly as obvious as the ones in Paul, another recent alien film with which Edgar Wright and Nick Frost were involved. Instead, this one relies more on the vibe than specific homages; there are touches of Gremlins, Alien, The Thing, and many more, but Attack always feels confident in its own skin, fine with sitting back and allowing the story to speak for itself. The language of the characters actually serves to strengthen this film’s own voice: catch phrases and exclamations like “allow it,” “truth!” and “believe!” give the movie a charm that no American remake (shudder) could hope to recapture.
Props must be given to first-time actor John Boyega who carries the film as Moses, the leader of the gang. He’s equally successful in the quietly intense moments as in the bombastic slow motion battle scenes, and I’m certain we haven’t seen the last of him on the big screen. Alex Esmail (who plays Pest) and Leeon Jones (who plays Jerome) also did some solid work, and Jodie Whittaker (Sam) did a great job as the emotional center of the movie. Nick Frost has a really small role, but he’s content with underplaying his part in order to let the young cast shine, so don’t expect much from him or you’ll surely be disappointed.
I can’t imagine having a more purely fun time in theaters this year, so expect Attack the Block to make it onto my Favorites of the Year list come December. If you ask me, there aren’t enough movies that feature swords and fireworks as ridiculous weapons, and this movie not only has both, but embraces them – they actually provide some of the coolest moments in the movie. Keep your eyes peeled for this one – it’s totally worth your while. Until next time…