SXSW 2011: Attack the Block - review

3 / 5 stars 3 out of 5 stars.
Joe Cornish's debut, in which aliens invade London on bonfire night, has bright lights and big bangs but fails to fully ignite
Attack the Block
BMXs at SXSW … Attack the Block

Fear an alien invasion? Take a look around you. If Nick Frost isn't in sight, your odds just improved. The Spaced star has now borne unruffled witness to extraterrestrial activity of one sort or another in Shaun of the Dead, Paul, and now the debut film from Joe Cornish, best known for the Adam and Joe show.

Cornish and his comedy partner Adam Buxton had a fine line in movie spoofs – their alt theme tune to Quantum of Solace ("Judi Dench is furious with him / He's gone completely out to lunch") is a thing of catchy beauty; their fluffy toy scene re-enactments razor-sharp satire. Hopes were high then for this: an alien invasion flick set on a south London council estate. And it premiered to a smitten army of geeks at the South by Southwest festival on Saturday night.

But for those who might not be fogged by the exoticism of a film set in the Oval, there's something a touch disappointing about Attack the Block: it fizzes and sparks, but sputters too much to really catch light.

Jodie Whittaker stars as a trainee nurse mugged near the tower block where she lives on 5 November. The attention then flips to the gang of muggers, where it stays for the remainder. Our hero, Moses (John Boyega, commanding) fells an alien that drops to earth: a strange, bald beastie which looks "like a monkey fucked a fish" and smells "like a shit did a shit" and is initially written off as just another dangerous dog. They're pleased with the scalp, until hundreds of others start hurtling to Earth in search of revenge ("It's raining Gollums!"); these ones deep black and hairy save for neon blue gnashers.

The film tracks the gang's attempts to defeat them, as well as the local drugs baron, and to wrangle those who require their aid – Whittaker, plus a stoned yuppie with delusions of street cred played by Luke Treadaway.

The pitfall with the comedy horror is that it must tick both boxes. Attack the Block delivers the odd good shock and gory shocker, but it's never especially scary. And though there's a few good lines – Frost with binoculars, surveying the scene from his window in horror: "Blockbuster's shut down" – they partly serve to make one nostalgic for Attack the Block's ancestors; for Frost's deathless request for a Cornetto in Shaun of the Dead.

One big positive: it looks extraordinary – clean and fresh and dazzling. A battle scene at the climax, which plays out largely in slow-motion, is breathtakingly beautiful. Stephen Price's propulsive score keeps things nippy. But you'd be forgiven for missing the lo-fi pleasures of The Robert De Niro Calypso.

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