This year, aliens have transformed into expensive cars, battled cowboys, taken bong rips, laid waste to Chicago and L.A., donned magic rings, attacked astronauts, kidnapped our mothers and written Spielbergian mash notes. Little green men have supplanted vampires as an on-screen fad (although we have yet to see sparkling Martians who just want to love, at least until the inevitable Starman remake). So the much-hyped British cheapie Attack the Block seems like a hard sell.
For the second time this year—following Super 8—we're sided with a rag-tag group of adolescent weirdos dealing with space invaders. It's about as generic as a movie can sound. But within three whip-smart minutes of Attack the Block, it's obvious freshman director Joe Cornish has crafted a nasty, hysterically funny homage that mines everything from 1950s sci-fi schlock to vintage John Carpenter to craft one of the smartest, funniest and most kinetic films of the season.
The film opens with our heroes—multi-cult London gangbangers who talk like Ali G and recall The Goonies by way of Boyz n the Hood—mugging a pretty young nurse (Jodie Whittaker), only to be interrupted by an alien life form plunging to Earth and into a nearby car. The kids' leader, charismatic 15-year-old Moses (John Boyega, in a star-making turn), promptly slays the beast and takes it to the nearest secure place, a weed den lorded over by a violent hip-hop wannabe (Jumayn Hunter) and run by fanny-pack-sporting Ron (Shaun of the Dead's Nick Frost).
Soon, an army of beasts is crashing to Earth, unnoticed by neighbors in the midst of a fireworks display. So the hoodies do what any group of self-respecting Xbox addicts would: They grab weapons—bats, Roman candles and a decorative katana blade—and hop on their bikes to protect their tower block while garnering the requisite YouTube fame.
What follows is a slick, streamlined hour of mayhem, with hoodrats sprinting through narrow alleyways and dimly lit corridors in an effort to outrun their adversaries, who curiously ignore the virtual buffet of human meat residing in the council high rise. Cornish—schooled by his producer, Edgar Wright, and recalling Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer's eye for stylized action—forgoes the shaky-cam aesthetics for a perfectly comprehensible symphony of chaos that captures everything from a whiz-bang street chase to an amazing slow-motion hero's run with complete control.
Attack the Block owes as much to John McTiernan as it does to its alien ancestors. With a nearly abandoned building providing ample claustrophobic tension—a scene in a smoke-filled corridor is particularly jarring in its vise-grip suspense—the film plays like Die Hard, but subbing snarling beasts for Eurotrash terrorists.
Making the most of the low budget, the monsters—which come to be known as "big, gorilla-wolf motherfuckers"—are hairy blobs absent of color except for their neon teeth. They maraud across the screen with a cartoonish menace that is fully realized each time a character meets a gruesome end.
This is genre drivel simmered to perfection by a director who makes the familiar seem alien. The joy of watching the picture lies in Cornish's skill at instilling it with the same freshness Wright's Shaun of the Dead gave to the rigor-mortis world of zombies. Attack the Block seethes cool while reminding us why we like this type of film in the first place: It makes us feel like kids again, facing the unknown with a smirk—and a katana blade, for good measure.
87 SEE IT: Attack the Block is rated R. It opens Friday at Lloyd Center.