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J.R. Taylor

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Teenage Savior: Attack the Block Lands with a Message

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011 - by J.R. Taylor

Last summer didn’t go well for Edgar Wright, Jr. The writer/director had his first big American studio release with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and the overblown epic bob-ombed spectacularly. (You’d get that clever “bob-ombed” reference if it had been a bigger hit.) Scott Pilgrim’s failure was particularly sad news for conservative moviegoers. The film was Edgar Wright’s third in a series of fine conservative schlock. It was certainly typical of Wright to have young Scott facing a villainous rock-star vegan who took pride in beating women. That character came on the heels of Wright’s 2007 action parody Hot Fuzz, where a dedicated London supercop is sent to a sleepy small town because, as the Chief Inspector explains, the other officers can’t have him “continue to be exceptional.”

Before that, Wright—who became a big deal in England with a television show called Spaced—had gotten international attention with 2004‘s Shaun of the Dead. That one was both a creepy zombie film and a sweet comedy about an overage adolescent picking the wrong day to finally become an adult. Adulthood is one of Wright’s favorite topics, which is pretty brave for a guy seeking out genre fans who don’t want to grow up. Now he’s back as a producer to push the new Attack the Block. It’s a sharp little sci-fi epic written and directed by protege Joe Cornish, and the UK production garnered plenty of raves in England. The movie hit America this weekend in a very limited release that still scored plenty of positive reviews.

Attack the Block isn’t conning the critics, either. The film has innovative camera work, a sharp soundtrack, and wild monochromatic monsters that get the most out of a modest special-effects budget. Sitting in the theater feels like being there for an early screening of John Carpenter’s Halloween or Guy Ritchies’s Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels—and the film owes a heavy debt to both directors, even if it plays more like the alien variant to Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. That’s especially true of the lead character’s quest for adulthood, which is also where Attack the Block sneaks in the right-wing messages.

We first meet Moses and his hoodlum pals while the teens are robbing a nurse at knifepoint. It’s the night of Bonfire Day in Britain, which means lots of fireworks and noise. Nobody else in the neighborhood—home to Moses’ Council Houses, which Yanks would call the projects—notices when something that looks like a small meteorite crashes down to destroy a car. Moses and the gang only care about how the disturbance interrupts their robbery. They aren’t interested in a space artifact, either. Moses only looks inside the mangled car to see if there’s anything to steal. Instead, he finds a space alien that gives him a nasty scratch. He chases it down, his gang helps kills the thing, and then they parade around with the valuable specimen like Spanky and Alfalfa with a freshly-slain garter snake.

Nobody thinks to watch the skies and see that the dead alien has lots of friends also plummeting down to visit the neighborhood. It takes a while before Moses learns that nasty fanged creatures are running around his building, and they have a special interest in whoever killed their pal. His gang bravely hangs around to help fight off the monsters with fireworks, ninja swords, and aluminum baseball bats. Meanwhile, conservatives in the audience are settling in like it’s one of those drive-in movies where bikers fight hippies, and you can just hope that everybody dies.

It doesn’t play out like that. Moses goes through enough changes to win over the audience. He doesn’t get there by killing more aliens, either. Moses has to debase himself first. He isn’t hitting rock bottom when robbing that nurse at knifepoint. He isn’t at his worse when he briefly signs on as a drug dealer and promptly gets nabbed by the cops. The real low for Moses is when he dourly speculates that the aliens must’ve been sent into the projects as a government conspiracy to kill off his neighborhood. “First they sent guns, then drugs, now monsters,” he explains.

A Hollywood production would run with that as a major plot point. In this film, Moses quickly learns how wrong he is—and it’s a moment accompanied by a teenage girl declaring that “Actions have consequences.”

Moses will end up taking more responsibility for his actions than he ever dreamed. That’s due to a smart script that makes Attack the Block more than just another fun genre film. This is one where you won’t feel stupid when you go back and actually think about the plot. The movie could also teach Cowboys and Aliens a few things about how an anti-hero actually earns some redemption. Moses doesn’t get to skip out on his obligations just because there may be a sequel in his future.

It’s still no spoiler to note that Attack the Block leads up to an impressively literal happy ending. That includes a boldly jingoistic moment that rivals anything from Captain America. The film did pretty well over this opening weekend in the States, and the campaign is already on at the Facebook page to roll prints out to more markets. Support the film in theaters if you can, or at least make plans to see Attack the Block on the small screen in September. Parents shouldn’t be put off by the R rating, either. This is easily the best film that any 15-year-old could go see this summer. Besides, that R rating is mostly for language—and the little hoods end up criticizing an adult for cursing too much.

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