Attack the Block, the debut film from the English comedy writer and performer Joe Cornish, appears subversive alongside a collage of friendly conventions like this summer's other teens-versus-aliens flick, Super 8. But in the context of the riots that recently occurred in tough English neighborhoods very much like the one depicted in the film, it may look trivial and corny.
Attack the Block is a movie about race and class, but with some serious asterisks: The group of mostly black boys at the center of the film has one white member, and black thugs roll deep with token white members. Unless the degree of integration of low-income groups of teenage friends is really that different in London than it is in, say, Brooklyn or Chicago, this is a pulled punch, a way to avoid alienating white viewers that's unrealistic even for a sci-fi comedy about shadowy beasts with glowing teeth.
But Block's victory is not as a cohesive work of social commentary but as a brilliant example of characterization through real personality rather than likeability. The movie is full of impressive gambles and conceits, telescoping an alien invasion to its effect on a single square block of South London taken up exclusively by a low-income housing development. The initially somewhat menacing but then believably goofy teenagers race to battle the invaders as if a video game has come to life.
Importantly, Cornish doesn't use the first few minutes of his film to introduce these boys, but instead tracks Sam, a cute 30ish white woman (Jodie Whittaker), walking home. We meet the film's main characters from Sam's perspective as the bandana-masked brigands mug her at knifepoint. After she's stripped of her valuables and left on the ground fearing the worst, she's able to get away when something crashes into a nearby car, distracting her assailants.
But as Sam scrambles away, the camera stays not with her but with the boys. Cornish follows them with a giddy tracking shot as they chase after the what's-it that has run from the crash, the soundtrack bubbling with their daffy, celebratory slang—"Belee-dat, fam!" The film has suddenly become buoyant with the silly spirit of these unconquerable youths. The same young hoodlums, incidentally, who'd just knocked a white lady on the ground and threatened to slice her up.
It's an almost shocking reversal of perspective, especially after the patience-testing innocence of the little cuties in Super 8. The gamble succeeds by virtue of having been taken, never mind that Cornish follows through on it to the movie's end. Though perhaps not deliberately (timing dictates that Block couldn't be a direct response to Super 8), Cornish's film transplants his monster-fighting adolescents out of the suburbs and into the projects—a "council estate" in UK parlance— not only making them poor kids but bad kids, or at least poor kids who do some bad things. The boys' leader, Moses (John Boyega), aspires to be a coke dealer, and there's no explicit reason to believe he hasn't altered his ambitions by the movie's conclusion.
Cornish packs his film with the self-imposed hierarchies of youth, including younger kids who want to run with Moses and Company, the big-shot drug dealer who confers status onto Moses with conditional employment, that dealer's lackeys, an allowanced white kid from a different nabe (amusingly blasting KRS-One's "Sound of Da Police" through earbuds) and the teenage girls who have tentative courtships with the main boys. Most of them are newcomers, only a few look like they could be movie stars (Boyega, for one, resembles Denzel) and all the young actors appear to be having great fun rather than making career moves. In one moment that might have been scripted but has the fizz of spontaneity, two of the girls burst into the chorus of the Fugees' "Ready or Not" in the middle of frenzied dialogue about the aliens down the hall.
Early in the film, Cornish moves the camera swiftly in and out of the boys' flats as they descend en masse down the buildings' stairs. He follows individual boys as they break from the group, run inside their homes to find hidden weapons and make vague excuses to their parents about curfews, then surge down the stairwell to do battle on the ground. As we see their homes and hear their neglectful parents, it's clear that reasons for these kids' occasional bad behavior won't transcend simplistic, near-patronizing white liberal attitudes about poverty creating crime. In the same moment, however, Cornish's technique transcends the simplicity of his argument. Cornish's mobility and efficiency never relent; his film is packed with unique movement and sense of place, making full use of the vertical geography of his location.
In this swift scene, and throughout Attack the Block, Cornish trumps political shortcomings with brilliant, surprising filmmaking, turning a modest sci-fi comedy into the perfect example of what fun movies of the summer—or any season—should be like.