Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Aliens in the Hood: ATTACK THE BLOCK

This year’s movie monsters have been sadly lacking. J. J. Abrams’s Super 8 is a good monster movie but, ironically enough, its most disappointing element is the monster. The humans are the entire source of interest. By the time the monster shows up in all his slimy, bug-eyed glory, it’s underwhelming. The titular beasts in Cowboys and Aliens were similarly afflicted with a ho-hum derivativeness that totally sunk what little there is to commend about that movie. These things are all arms and slime with inky black eyes and watery slithers, nothing more than the basic component elements of H.R. Giger’s Alien designs mixed and matched into something familiar-but-different.

So imagine my amazement that the slick and scrappy British creature feature Attack the Block shows off monsters that I’ve never seen before. In the dark, these are barely visible aliens, every inch covered with pitch-black fur. Only their eerie glowing maws reveal their presence in swift, chomping movements. I was delighted and surprised by these creepy creatures, which have a sense of weight and reality that is all too missing from those modern CG beasts. Even more impressive is the fact that the film that houses them is not only one of the most flat-out entertaining pictures of the year, but also the perfect kind of resourceful genre flick that has a point of view and something to say.

The events of the film take place in and around a towering building of low-income housing that dominates a city block in south London. The protagonists are a multi-ethnic group of young, aimless, posturing, unsupervised teens. They’re a tight-knit group of friends, joking, laughing, and bragging amongst themselves. A tall, older-looking-than-his-years boy clearly runs the group (John Boyega), but his buddies (which include Franz Drameh, Alex Esmail, Simon Howard, and Leeon Jones) aren’t underlings; they’re close friends. Their relationships are sharply drawn and convincing. They’re as warm and unconsciously self-conscious as any group of teen boys. We can see that they’re good kids – they genuinely care about their friends and their neighborhood – but the film doesn’t let them off easy. Their relationship to the audience is complicated. As the film opens, we are introduced to them menacing a white twenty-something woman (Jodie Whittaker), trying to steal her purse. While they bother the poor lady, a small falling object crushes a car parked nearby.

Investigating this crash landing, the kids are attacked by a gross, startling little alien. In a fit of fright, and posturing, they bludgeon the creature to death. Thus, the film starts off like a sick joke version of E.T. Instead of a white suburban kid befriending a nice little extra-terrestrial, here a group of inner-city kids kill a mean old alien and parade the body back to their block. They take it to their local weed dealer (Nick Frost) who decides to let them keep it in his weed room until the kids can contact the proper scientific authorities. After all, they just discovered a new life form, at least that’s what one of the buyers in the room (Luke Treadaway), a stoned nature doc fan, informs them.

This is all well and good, rapid-fire world building, but when things start to get hairy, the film explodes in a rush of excitement that builds increasingly tense and giddy as we race towards the climax. It turns out that the alien was just the first to land, so when the furry, pitch-black, essentially invisible, glowing-toothed aliens start stalking around the block, trying desperately to get into the towering building, looking like they’re sniffing around for revenge, the kids are the only ones prepared to recognize the threat. There’s a bit of Joe Dante (he of Gremlins) in the exuberance with which the film approaches the danger. The kids grab what they can find – anything blunt and wieldable – while they mount their bikes and get ready to protect their block from a localized alien invasion. The action that follows makes incredible use of their apartment building, with the characters and creatures scampering up, down, and all around the inner-city architecture in exciting, comprehensible ways with crisp editing from Jonathan Amos while cinematographer Thomas Townend gets a gritty beauty out of the thick nighttime atmosphere.

The film finds great vibrancy in the mostly inexperienced young actors, who bring a youthful vitality and braggadocio to their roles. They’re posturing at first, playing at the idea of toughness, but as events unfold they drop the charade and slowly turn into heroic toughs despite being scared out of their minds. One suggests they text for help. The reply: “This is too much madness to fit into one text!” The characters come from a rough part of town, but that doesn’t make them bad, unlikable, or disposable. The film asserts their humanity and strength under pressure, allows them to goof around and fight back with equal agency. They aren’t the white upper crust with the stiff upper lip of Merchant Ivory films and the Royal Family, but that doesn’t make them any less British. When they run into their victim from the film’s opening and discover that she lives in the same building they do, they’re apologetic. “We wouldn’t have robbed you if we’d known.”

This is a film energized by a deep sense of social justice and cross-cultural understanding without feeling burdened by weighty themes. It’s fleet, fast, and funny with an irrepressible wit and heart that shows through even the squishier moments of creature-related mayhem. Here, violence has consequences. Early on, the police turn up in response to the disturbance and make things worse by assuming that these kids are on a violent rampage and locking down the block. No one gets in; no one gets out. The kids have to deal with this dangerous situation without any outside help. It’s a move that amps up the plot’s tension considerably – nowhere to run, nowhere to find reinforcements – but also serves the larger satiric point beautifully. The larger society has turned a blind eye, misinterpreting the problems and enforcing solutions that only make matters worse. Those in power have effectively abandoned these kids.

Writer-director Joe Cornish, a veteran of British TV, makes his feature debut with Attack the Block, which is, in the end, not only one of the best movies of the year but one of the best debuts in several years. It’s a deceptively complex movie that mixes serious intent with a great pop tone, deeply aware of both youth culture and sociological concerns. Frightfully exciting set pieces make increasingly inventive use of a limited number of locations. The film builds characters that feel real. They’re funny and engaging and never sink to spouting monster movie clichés. They’re as distinct and memorable as the monsters they have to fight and the place in which they live. If you never thought a movie about “big alien gorilla-wolf [expletives]” could be not only one of the most entertaining movies of the year, but one of the most moving and thoughtful as well (and all in only 88 minutes!) I have just one word for you: Believe.

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