Brit comedian-TV presenter Joe Cornish emerges fully formed as an exciting new writer-helmer with his enormously appealing debut feature, “Attack the Block.” Pitched as “inner city vs. outer space,” pic sees a quintet of teen street hoodlums defend their tower-block home in the projects from an invasion of shaggy-haired aliens with Day-Glo teeth. Set over one wild night in South London, this zero-to-hero tale will play gangbusters in its native Blighty before a rich ancillary career. Authentic Brit teen slang may render “Block” a puzzling lifeform for foreign auds, but pockets of receptive fans across the planet are a given.
The first greenlit screenplay from the well-connected Cornish was Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” co-scripted with Edgar Wright (exec producer here) and Steven Moffat. However, since the big-budget Herge adaptation is still in production, Cornish’s own directorial effort is being released first. The talent on display in “Attack the Block” more than justifies Spielberg and Wright’s faith in the novice scribe, previously best known to U.K. auds for TV’s “The Adam and Joe Show” and its radio spinoff.
Story begins with racially diverse teen protags Moses (John Boyega), Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones) and Biggz (Simon Howard) relieving nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) of her cellphone, purse and ring at knife-point. Next, an alien falls from the sky, crashing through the roof of a parked car. The extraterrestrial incident provokes little interest from authorities, since the sky is already lit up by fireworks celebrating Britain’s Bonfire Night, but the boys chase and kill the intruder, then cart their booty to benign cannabis cultivator Ron (Nick Frost) for advice on how to monetize the find.
Cornish is mostly well served by his youthful lead actors, especially Boyega as ringleader Moses, who’s granted the most complete character arc as he comes to accept responsibility for impetuous actions that precipitate a full-on alien invasion. Likable supporting characters abound, including the boys’ skeptical female friends and two young urchins who want in on the action. Even the potentially cliched role of trust-fund stoner Brewis, an outsider caught up in the mayhem, is nicely elevated thanks to witty dialogue delivered by Luke Treadaway.
Most obvious point of comparison is Wright’s 2004 zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead” (in which Cornish had an uncredited cameo), with its mix of wry humor and genre homage. Pic also reps a natural evolution from a popular “Adam and Joe Show” segment in which classic or recent movies were re-enacted with stuffed toys. In “Attack the Block,” the fantasy-adventure spoof is instead populated by kids who are evidently a product of their tough environment.
The boys earn sympathy when they make up with Sam, stand up to violent criminal Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) and save the day, paying dearly in some cases. Thanks to nimble pacing, the boys’ excitement should prove effectively contagious. While the film’s use of the voguish teen lexicon will add to its appeal domestically, flummoxed non-native auds won’t miss any important plot points, and subtitling or dubbing should cover the cracks in foreign-lingo outposts.
Propulsive score by Steven Price, with Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe of dance-music duo Basement Jaxx, adds another jolt of energy, while lenser Tom Townend (who shot Samantha Morton’s “The Unloved”) makes savvy use of the nighttime housing-project setting, exploiting street lamps, interior strip lighting, fireworks and the aliens’ eerily glowing blue-white teeth. The fast-moving creatures are plenty scary but in less aggressive circumstances might almost qualify, like their teen adversaries, as cuddly.