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MOVIE REVIEW

Attack the Block

Brit alien-invasion satire ‘Attack’ is full of surprises

John Boyega (left, with Jodie Whittaker) plays a young hood who tries to keep his crew from aliens in Joe Cornish’s first directed film, “Attack the Block.’’ John Boyega (left, with Jodie Whittaker) plays a young hood who tries to keep his crew from aliens in Joe Cornish’s first directed film, “Attack the Block.’’ (Screen Gems Photos)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / August 19, 2011

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There’s a smart moment in the new alien-invasion action-comedy “Attack the Block’’ in which a young black hood named Moses (John Boyega) speculates that the monsters roving around his South London high-rise apartment complex must have been sent from the government to kill black people. His rant doesn’t rile the teenage girls who’ve just listened to him. They laugh, which is a surprising reaction, not because they ought to agree with him, but because the movie knows they shouldn’t. Agreeing with him would somehow excuse the thuggery that Moses and his friends practice in the opening sequence. Even though these girls know London race and class dynamics, they won’t go there.

The movie’s amateurishly made. But the script is full of little surprises. The writer and director, Joe Cornish, is going for something that’s hard to do: a social satire of movie genres. The social part is not so much about real society. It’s about the way society works in movies, the way thugs, stoners, damsels, and creatures function in them. It’s possible to enjoy “Attack the Block’’ purely as an action comedy - the tagline is “inner city vs. outer space,’’ like “Cowboys & Aliens’’ or Slip ’n Slide. But Cornish wants to tweak the way stock characters work by dismantling them then reconsidering their function.

In another film, Moses and his multiracial crew would be marginal kids who commit a purse snatching, auto theft, or murder that triggers or advances the plot. Cornish foregrounds them. The movie begins with them mugging a young white nurse (Jodie Whittaker). An explosion interrupts the assault, and the boys go to check it out only to discover a reptilian creature inside a car. The nurse escapes. The creature scratches Moses’s face. And soon a race of pitch-black primates with glow-in-the-dark teeth descends upon the apartment complex for reasons of comical biological reproduction that might mean to be another joke on sex and race. It’s hard to say, but, visually, the ape-wolf-splotches are the second-best thing in the movie. They’re apes by way of Nintendo and the music videos of Gorillaz, and they hold their close-ups.

The young hoods wind up running from both the monsters and an older amped-up gangsta named Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) whose sidekick the monsters rip apart. The hoods and the nurse start working together (their accusatory nickname for her - “Snitch’’ - becomes a term of endearment). Nick Frost plays a weed dealer who works for the gangsta. He has a preppy, middle-class client who listens to KRS-One and happens to be a zoologist (Luke Treadaway). Cornish appears to have seen too many Guy Ritchie movies and creates his own traffic jam of coincidences. He either loses his grip on the plot or he never had it. Unlike the average Ritchie pileup, “Attack the Block’’ is short on actorly charisma or charm. For the most part, these are all spectacularly annoying people. But once it’s over you almost buy Boyega as a kind of insurgent English hero.

Of course, by the time a dangling Moses is shown hanging on for dear life to what appears to be the British flag, it’s a point that Cornish, directing his first film, overplays. The movie opened in England before this month’s riots. But one wonders whether it was on the minds of any looters with vague action-movie ideology. Cornish isn’t aiming for class warfare, he’s striving for something like its opposite. I just wish he had a better handle on his tone. There are enough sideways turns and smart lines of dialogue about money and skin color for the movie to work as satire, but the central absurdity of the invasion itself never reaches a fever pitch - unless it’s the scene in which a girl whacks one creature with an ice skate.

The movie is more cleverly executed than the aliens-and-apartheid allegory “District 9’’ but scarcely as fun, daring, well made, or politically inflammatory as the indigent uprising in the French action film “District B13.’’ The cutting here is jittery, and one slow-motion chase sequence brings down the house even though it looks terrible. It’s hard to tell whether the audience is laughing at bad technique or with it. Either way, it’s funny.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.

ATTACK THE BLOCK

Written and directed by:

Joe Cornish

Starring: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Luke Treadaway, Jumayn Hunter,

and Nick Frost

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 88 minutes

Rated: R (monsters, drugs, profanity, violence,

blood, guns)

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