Joe Cornish has obviously studied a lot of low-budget action movies—pictures like John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” and Walter Hill’s “The Warriors,” in which characters that start out as criminal types turn out to be heroes—and absorbed their lessons. I suspect he’s also seen “Critters,” since the furry aliens he’s added to the mix resemble them, except that they’re more menacing with their glowing sea-blue teeth. The result is a debut feature that has energy and some laughs, but in the end suffers from a familiar threadbare quality.
The hero of the piece, or antihero if you prefer, is Moses (John Boyega), the brooding leader of a pack of London teen toughs that also includes Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones) and Biggz (Simon Howard). After robbing Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a pretty young nurse, at knifepoint as she walks home, the gang kills a strange canine-like creature that crashes into a car in a space-pod and scampers away; they carry off the remains as a trophy that might be worth something.
But that’s only the beginning of the alien invasion. Soon hordes of other little ships are crashing in the vicinity, disgorging a troupe of more ferocious beasties that take aim on our punk band. They’re gone back to their high-rise public-housing building, where they confer with a friend, scruffy pot dealer Ron (Nick Frost), and flamboyant local drug kingpin Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). As they alternately run from and try to counterattack against the aliens and protect their “block” (with some of them falling in the process), other residents get involved—three girls and a couple of tykes who want to join the fray armed with water guns and firecrackers. But the most notable hanger-on is Brewis (Luke Treadaway), a customer of Ron’s who’s a nervous geek but a wit and font of information (he’s the one who offers a suggestion about the reasons behind the aliens’ actions that proves the key to defeating them).
Cornish is reasonably adept at staging the frequent chases and brawls, though he and his cinematographer Tom Townend and editor Jonathan Amos can’t conceal the budgetary limitations: the images are sometimes murky and the action not always ideally clear. Boyega makes a rather stiff, inexpressive lead, though that might have been intended as a homage to similarly laconic heroes of the past, and Whittaker isn’t a terribly engaging romantic interest for him. But Esmail picks up the slack as motormouth Pest, and Treadaway handles the best of Cornish’s lines with relish. Frost makes an amiably scruffy pothead, but Hunter chews the scenery a bit too enthusiastically as his boss. As for the music score, the three composers—Steven Price, Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe—appear to be enamoured with early Carpenter, too.
“Attack the Block” is a promising first effort, and if there were still a place for double bills or drive-in fodder, it would be a perfect fit for such venues. But it lacks the inventiveness and panache that turned “District 9,” for example, into a cult favorite and monster hit.