Like the big budget, star-heavy Cowboys & Aliens, the British import Attack the Block pits invading extraterrestrials against a breed of earthlings rarely called upon to battle them.
But this film's heroes are not archetypes from a bygone fiction genre: They're nobodies yanked from the streets of a modern city. (The actors playing them are nobodies, too.) Given what it does with its ingredients, the film might as well be called Attack the Blockbuster, a name befitting a tale whose scrappy vigor makes Hollywood's products look cobwebbed.
The title doesn't refer to blockbusters, of course, but to housing blocks, the depressing and dangerous apartment projects where England's poor live. For mysterious reasons, aliens have chosen to attack a single South London complex, the fast, furry beasts (with mouths full of glow-in-the-dark fangs) singling out five young thugs who would otherwise be preying on innocent humans. During the course of one long night, the battle stretches from public areas, where the boys are used to being feared, to the living rooms and bedrooms in which they're still seen as children.
The movie's panache and energy were undeniable when it screened early for critics several weeks ago. At the time, its undercurrent of class-consciousness was simply that: a subtle theme with many precedents, among them Night of the Living Dead director George Romero's fondness for planting political barbs in zombie movies.
But seen again, after riots overtook London, the movie looks prescient, maybe even important. It would be ridiculous to say English lawmakers should watch Block while deciding how to combat urban violence. But the movie does, in its unpreachy way, condemn society's two main ways of dealing with the discontented poor: policing them into submission and pretending they don't exist.
Writer/director Joe Cornish (an associate of Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright) is too mature to excuse the teens' lawless ways or suggest we shouldn't condemn them; he simply forces us to view them as people instead of narrative objects, then to root for their survival.
But no monster movie endures because of its political allegory or socioeconomic savvy. Like The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers before it, Attack the Block demands to be seen simply because it is a thrill, a pulse-raiser whose perfect construction and pointed wit make it one of the year's most exciting films.
Cornish smartly uses local color (including the automated hall lights used to cut the block's electric bills) to amplify a scene's danger, then cuts to stoner humor (courtesy of Shaun co-star Nick Frost, who plays a pot dealer) for just long enough to remind us what "comic relief" means.