The tough residents of a south London flat block fight off a batch of nasty alien invaders in this entertaining low-budget sci-fi throw back to stripped down action pictures like John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Truth be told, I didn’t expect much from this SXSW favorite. I assumed it would be another one of those movies like Kick-Ass or Zombieland or Hobo with a Shotgun that the Comic-Con crowd goes crazy for at film festivals but turn out to be wholly disappointing in the cold light of day. The start was admittedly rocky and I was just about to think I’d been burned again, but Attack the Block finally delivers on its genre promise of sci-fi thrills and low budget action with a little welcome humor thrown in.
The first 45 minutes or so aren’t so promising. The problem is that the story revolves around a group of thug lowlifes whom we first meet in the act of mugging a perfectly likable young woman played by Jodie Whittaker (Venus). Up to a point, I found myself actively rooting for the aliens to win. Eventually though, the punk characters are filled out, they wind up having a lot more depth than it would at first appear and they find themselves not only on the run from aliens, but from another criminal even more dangerous than they are. Plus, in a bit of irony, appealing Jodie Whittaker winds up siding with them against the aliens. From that point on, Attack the Block is just pure fun.
Though writer/director Joe Cornish (he’s big on Brit TV but this is his first feature) is clearly showing affection for gritty Carpenter/Hill-esque action pictures, the tone he strikes here is far more Dr. Who than The Warriors. The sci-fi plot is clever but neatly contained and there’s too much humor for the possible consequences of defeat to ever cut too close to the bone. Helping ramp up that humor, Nick Frost (Shawn of the Dead) plays a funny layabout, stoned-out-of-his-gourd pot dealer and Luke Treadaway (Killing Bono) gets some good laughs as a drug buyer from a wealthier part of town.
As for the special effects, they’re also Dr. Who-level but they’re used sparingly and effectively. The aliens are mostly black, hairy, four legged shapes notable for the multiple rows of phosphorescent teeth lining their gaping jaws. They’re made even creepier through effective sound design.
In the end, Attack the Block doesn’t have quite the same juice as other recent low budget sci-fi outings (District 9, Monsters) but it doesn’t take itself as seriously either. It’s a sci-fi/action romp and Joe Cornish makes the most of the little money he has.