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Attack the Block can't quite find its humor



Given its pedigree, British creation Attack the Block arrived in theaters with surprisingly little fanfare or promotion, at least here in the States. Why would a film produced by the same team that brought us the sharp satires Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz arrive under this cover of darkness, almost as if there is something to be embarrassed about? The easy answer is that it's not good, but that's too simplistic.

Attack the Block isn't terrible, but it is a gigantic mess of a film that squanders countless opportunities to make us laugh and scream. In an attempt to mix social satire with a B-movie horror plot, the end result is neither funny nor particularly scary. And while I can tepidly applaud the effort to combine the two, this is a film that I will forget before the week is out.

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The brilliant comic duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, whom we've become accustomed to seeing in these films, is only half present here, and Frost is only a bit player in a small stoner role in which he still manages to elicit more laughs than anyone else. The rest of the cast is mainly unknown teenagers playing a band of neighborhood thugs who all live in a low-class London apartment complex. Attack the Block unfolds over the course of one night after our group of hoodlums discovers and proceeds to quickly kill an alien that has fallen out of the sky like a meteor.

So far, so good; the immediate reaction of the teenagers to chase after an extraterrestrial that has tried to bite one of them, instead of, say, reporting the UFO to authorities, feels like an authentic scene. That they would then haul the alien corpse around town to show it off to friends makes it that much better. But from there, just as dozens of other alien meteors start dropping out of the sky, the film begins its slow and disheartening collapse as the gang of adolescents makes it their mission to defend the block.

It's a shame because the teenagers, led by Moses (John Boyega), are an endearing group of kids, despite their criminal tendencies. When they mug a young woman (Jodie Whittaker) in the film's first scene, it's easy to see that they're as scared of what they're doing as she is of what's being done to her. As a 15-year-old who could pass for a 20-something, Boyega plays a troubled soul with ease.

Unbeknownst to him, Moses is also covered with female alien pheromones as a result of his initial contact with the E.T. That's a problem because A) the aliens apparently only sent one female to earth and now she's dead and B) the dozens of male aliens that proceeded to fall out of the sky would very much like to find her. This explains why in a city of seven million people, the pack of aliens is on a mission to find just one.

It's a scary premise that never pans out. The special effects folks must shoulder some of the blame here. The female alien is creepy; as Frost's character Ron says, she looks like the result of a "monkey that fucked a fish." The males, however, are basically shaggy-haired black bears with glow-in-the-dark teeth and Spiderman's ability to climb buildings. This might be funny if the film didn't insist on taking a more serious and dark route. If you're going to play it straight, I need a serious-looking alien that's going to give me nightmares.

Attack the Block never really figures out how it wants to play it, with director Joe Cornish unwilling to commit fully to either a satire or an alien thriller. The teenage redemption story is weak because it's impossible to buy the premise that these were bad kids to begin with and not just scared little punks; the alien story suffers from a lack of suspense (if we've learned one thing from great alien films, it's that less is more when it comes to screen time for the critters); and whatever comedy angle there is never gets more than two feet off the ground before sputtering back to earth. We really could have used some Simon Pegg.

If you want teenagers fighting aliens, go rent Super 8, one of last summer's best films and one that won't leave your lofty expectations high and dry. It's a film that, without trying, contains more laughs than Attack the Block could ever dream of.

Attack the Block continues at the Wilma.

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