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Do Be a Menace to South London

Attack the Block (2011)

Optimum Releasing

It turns out the British sci-fi horror genre blender “Attack the Block” is largely a virginal affair. Most of the main players — including the writer-director, cinematographer, composer and a handful of young unknown actors — have never done a feature film before. And because of the relative inexperience of the cast and crew and the possibility the lack of season could have led to a complete disaster on screen, this film deserves some degree of kudos for being halfway decent. But mediocrity can only be praised so much.

What starts out as an unquestionably cool premise later on unravels into a hackneyed production. Our would-be heroes — five British teenage hoodlums — are not all that heroic initially. Armed with knives, they rob Sam (Jodie Whittaker), an innocent nurse walking alone at night. After the kids complete the mugging, a beam of light shoots down from the sky and crashes into a nearby car. Moses (John Boyega), the gang’s leader, checks it out and is attacked by a mysterious creature. The boys regroup and chase the creature into an empty field before killing it and carrying around the corpse as if it were a trophy.

Back in the same housing project the kids call home, Sam has reported the mugging to police and accompanies the cops as they search for the gang. Moses and his friends are spotted; but before the cops can do anything, more aliens interrupt the police procedure. The end result of the set piece is two dead cops as Sam and Moses’s gang team up for the rest of the night to fight off the aliens and try to stay alive.

Writer-director Joe Cornish has thrown a nice twist on the typical monster movie by setting the story in a London housing project and using teenage hoodlums as antiheroes. And with an 88-minute running time, the film is brisk enough to avoid severe boredom.

Those compliments aside, it is a bit perplexing that, since “Attack the Block” premiered at South by Southwest in March, critics have hailed it as some sort of low-budget genre masterpiece. At 8 million British pounds ($13 million), the budget is not that low, especially when you consider the lack of name recognition in the cast (with the exception of Nick Frost, who is pretty awesome in his minimal role as a pot dealer). Mr. Cornish and his producers — including “Shaun of the Dead” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” director Edgar Wright — should have spent some more money on designing the aliens. Or should we say alien-monsters, since the creatures in the film are referred to as “gorilla-wolves;” and despite their black fur, unfortunately resemble Sulley, the John Goodman-voiced animation from “Monsters, Inc.” It is a huge problem for a film operating in the science-fiction and horror genres when the creatures meant to scare and create tension look as silly as they do here, thus zapping away large doses of suspense.

The acting is solid throughout; and Mr. Boyega — who resembles a pubescent Denzel Washington — does a fine job in the film’s most important role. Also, Alex Esmail slips into the role of smart-mouthed shrimp Pest and gives the movie much of its comedy when Mr. Frost is not on screen. Words of praise must also go to Steven Price and house-music duo Basement Jaxx, who combined to fuse together eclectic sounds, synth and bass for an appreciated sci-fi/hip-hop soundtrack.

Finally, a few words about the heavier themes of the film: Race and poverty are briefly addressed in “Attack the Block,” but Mr. Cornish’s commentary is so regrettably underused. Outside of the introduction and conclusion, the topic of poverty is brought up once more in a completely out-of-place monologue by Moses, which suggests the government has sent the aliens into the ghetto purposely to rid society of its poorest people. The rhetoric of the speech is not the problem here. In fact, this kind of political angle channeled through teenage boys could have made this film incredible if it were developed throughout instead of being randomly inserted in this one odd moment. But after the mugging and police chase in the beginning, the cops are nowhere to be found. Newscasters, who would likely cover an alien invasion, are strangely absent as well. Mr. Cornish just leaves us with the boys, the aliens and a whole lot of formulaic plot.


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