Attack the Block – review

4 / 5 stars 4 out of 5 stars.
First-time director Joe Cornish excels in this very funny comedy about an alien invasion on a London council estate
Attack the Block
Mirth vs flying saucers ... Attack the Block.

Back in 1995, Mathieu Kassovitz gave us a brutal inner-city classic called La Haine (Hate). Now British comedian-turned-film-maker Joe Cornish has created something from much the same world. But this good-natured and endlessly likable debut could as well be called La Gaiété, or L'Espoir, or indeed L'Amour. It's a terrifically funny, gutsy action-adventure comedy about invaders from space attacking a council tower block in south London. The extra-terrestrials, with their hairy lupine bodies and glowing blue fangs, make aggressive planetfall right in the middle of a council estate, to the astonishment of a petty gang of lairy teens who have just mugged a defenceless nurse for her money and jewellery, and are about to move up to the big time, selling drugs for a paranoid gangland leader holed up in his reinforced strongroom, growing weed under halogen lights. But this gang of bullies on BMXs must find redemption by teaming up with their victim and saving Planet Earth.

As well as excitement and laughs, Cornish provides some sharp social comment on the subject of aliens and alienation. Now, there are many who will feel they have consumed enough hand-wringing analysis from the concerned commentariat about aggressive youths in Broken Britain controlling their turf, and yet as scared as babies of moving anywhere beyond these "ends". Cornish tackles the same idea but with a light touch and a cheerful, unfashionably optimistic belief in a happy outcome somewhere along the line. His sci-fi urban pastoral is also a satirical fantasy. What if enemies or opposing groups were suddenly confronted by a common foe? Might they not discover common ground that should have been cultivated anyway?

Jodie Whittaker plays Sam, an overworked, underpaid nurse who is walking home from the tube station, talking to her mum on the mobile. She finds herself surrounded by a crew of five teenagers, led by the hard, impassive Moses (John Boyega). They demand her valuables and threaten her with a knife. She is white; they are black and mixed-race; she speaks RP English and they speak London patois-slang, the language in which the rest of the movie is to be conducted. Moses and his mates don't realise it, but Sam lives in the same place they do – the awe-inspiringly gaunt, grim tower block that looms into the night sky like a marooned spaceship. Just as trembling, terrified Sam hands over her possessions, the extra-terrestrial assault begins. Furiously, Moses attacks the invader and becomes as terrified of these interplanetary beasts as Sam is of them. Yet Sam and Moses have to team up to fight the aggressor.

There is tremendous supporting work from Jumayn Hunter (last seen in Paul Andrew Williams's Cherry Tree Lane) as drug dealer Hi-Hatz, Nick Frost as his laidback, avuncular second-in-command Ron, and Luke Treadaway as the appalling trustafarian Brewis, always trying to be street-cred and speak like the guys from the block – his witty performance is a reminder that there is a certain type of middle-class white man who should never attempt to use the word "jokes" adjectivally, to mean "funny". It's easy to watch a film like this and wonder … when are the grownup white actors going to take over? The answer is never. With tremendous assurance and utter lack of condescension, Cornish puts his young cast playing the council-block kids at the very centre of the action. He directs them tremendously well and they reward him with performances of charm and energy that carry the film.

Cornish intelligently uses his medium-range budget to suggest, rather than show the aliens themselves, and succeeds in creating a genuine action picture from which comedy naturally arises, rather than a series of sketch-show gags we are expected to buy into as drama. When Sam is simmeringly angry with Moses, and tells a police officer that she has no intention of being forced out of her home by a bunch of thugs and bullies, she could almost be in a gritty social-realist picture.(Attack the Block looks a little like Michael Winterbottom's film Wonderland.)

Later, she must search around Moses's flat while talking to him on the phone; she comes across what appears to be a little kid's bedroom with a Spider-Man duvet on the bed. Between them, Cornish, Whittaker and Boyega create a situation of poignancy and force when Sam asks Moses if he has a baby brother, before the penny drops. "How old are you?" she asks. "Fifteen," says Moses, blankly. "You look older," says Sam wonderingly, and Moses's artless reply of "Thanks" is given something heart-wringingly vulnerable by Boyega.

Attack the Block draws on the classic science-fiction model such as Independence Day and the siege drama – Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 – but there's also something very innocent and English here, something reminiscent of the 1947 Ealing comedy Hue and Cry. Cornish has made an impressive debut: in his early comedy career, he made his name by pastiching and taking the mickey out of Hollywood movies. But this doesn't look like a pastiche; it looks like the real thing.