I’d call this the E.T. Shot.

Attack the Block is one of those movies I’ve been hearing about for almost a year. Almost always in praise, too, and from sources I trust. As such, I expected it to be something special and wasn’t disappointed. That said, a lot of people are saying it’s one of the best of the year and due to the hype and commentary I’ve already been exposed to, I’m not sure where I stand with it in the context of other films released in 2011 (more or less).  I know that I liked it quite a bit and I’ll here attempt to tell you why I did and why you might too. Business as usual, in other words, except for that I might talk more about this one in the future after I’ve seen it again (hopefully with some friends as it is an audience movie for sure).

I wouldn’t be surprised if you, imaginary readers, haven’t heard of this movie. It’s a British film which means it was released ages ago everywhere but North America (though professional critics have seen it and there have been various NA screenings… it may be in limited release by now too, not sure). On the flip-side, it’s from Joe Cornish who has worked with Edgar Wright and features Nick Frost (who everyone knows and loves) alongside the uknown teenage actors in a small but fun role.

The movie is about a gang of poor tenement-dwelling South London thugs and their encounter with a small-scale alien invasion. The plot feels like an Amblin 80’s movie where a group of plucky kids takes on some crazy situation with their ingenuity, precociousness, and so on. Of course, what makes Attack the Block more interesting is that it’s startlingly contemporary. I think this is accomplished by keeping the grittiness of the social realities of its main characters front and center. Led by the quietest and hardest of the lot, Moses (John Boyega), these are all poor kids who are playing at thuggery and petty gang activity. However, Moses at least is on the cusp of something bigger and not in a good way. The local self-styled grand poobah is basically a caricature of the adoption of American tropes for underprivileged kids in London as well as being a great example of the shallowness and ridiculousness of that lifestyle. He wants to take Moses under his wing, get him peddling weed and so on. Moses, though, is head-to-toe the kind of guy that might dress that way and talk that way but definitely doesn’t think that way. He isn’t playing and that’s what makes him believable (and scary) at first and then believable (and heroic) later on as events pit the two against each other.

If Attack the Block was just about Moses and his friends dealing with pseudo-gangland shit then we’d also have an interesting movie (with this writer, director, and cast for sure). Of course, we have that stuff and the added complications of a bunch of fuzzy, toothy aliens falling from the sky and trailing behind the youngsters causing havoc and death wherever they go. The aliens are a character in their own right, the product of some really canny design decisions that set them apart from stuff we’ve seen before while also allowing for some familiarity. The kids constantly call them after creatures they’d know from British pop culture, references to Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, etc.

The aliens absorb light, they are so black. All except their day-glo teeth. It’s a neat design, giving us almost no idea about the physiology of these gorilla-like creatures but allowing them to be shown without diluting the shock value.

Those references to pop culture (including videogame references and so on) are what reminds us that these are just a bunch of teenage boys in way over their head. It humanizes them in spite of the mugging that opens the film and makes us accept that they would eventually (but not without difficulty) win over the very woman they mugged, Sam the nurse (Jodie Whittaker) who happens to live in their building. She is thrown together with them and acts as a cipher for the audience’s shift of perspective on Moses and his friends.

In terms of the action and alien-busting that takes place, the movie goes for laughs at first by making these boys practically itch for a fight with the creatures after easily dispatching one (that is not like the others). They gear up in what has to be the year’s best such scene (which I call gearing up scenes!). I particularly like when scooter-driving Dennis (Franz Drameh) pulls a wakizashi off his wall only to go back for the katana (which becomes the focal weapon in the movie, but not ostentatiously so). The boys quickly realize that they are overmatched, however, and the movie (for the most part) becomes a straightforward creature-feature.

A really good one, at that. There are many exciting moments and a sense of fun is somehow maintained throughout in spite of the gruesome mayhem caused by the creatures. Watching Moses basically turn into an action hero is exhilarating too, especially because he reveals some (absurd) deeper thoughts about his overall existential condition even though so much of the character is internalized. This makes the ending feel pretty earned as well and also a bit retro. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.

A lot the end-game takes place in the cramped nooks and hallways of The Block, home to most of the characters in the film.

The most precarious element of the movie is probably the kid-actors playing the main characters. They are uniformly good, however. What awkwardness may be present is obfuscated by the unfamiliar slang and heavy accents. Their banter and exchange of pop-culture touchstones is decipherable anyway, though it does help if you’ve familiarized yourself with British movies in general. Everybody gets a moment or two to themselves to shine with one hilarious highlight going to two small would-be hoodlums who insist on being called Probs and Mayhem. They are dismissed all through the movie up until they finally get to show what they’re made of by saving one of Moses’s crew the alien that has him trapped in a dumpster.

All in all, I may have expected too much from Attack the Block but I know that it was vague, unsubstantiated hype as a result of being aware of it for so long (and reading reviews which I really shouldn’t do). So while I’m not screaming my love for it from the rooftops, I definitely recommend it especially for those of us who grew up with E.T. and The Goonies. It is a more successful and fresher attempt at remixing that old formula than Super 8 was. Also, it has a great soundtrack by someone (or something) called Basement Jaxx. So there’s that. There’s also that in a year+ of way too many alien movies of one kind or another, Attack the Block is easily one of the best ones.

In the spirit of full disclosure then, as I’ve said, I need to see Attack the Block again. But I want to see it again and that means good things.