See It: Attack The Block
Given the glut of over-the-top alien invasion movies that Hollywood has churned out since Independence Day made a mint – productions that take us from our homes, probe our wallets, and subject us to hours of painful, inhuman experiments – it’s downright thrilling to watch an alien flick with characters that you care about, fighting monsters that give you the willies. Such is Attack the Block, a by-the-numbers invasion story from writer/director Joe Cornish that feels like anything but. Set in a depressed London neighborhood dominated by massive, drab apartment complexes (or “blocks”), the story begins when a group of smart-mouthed teens mug a nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker) on her walk home. After something from the heavens crashes into a parked car, the group’s leader, Moses (John Boyega), is attacked by a freaky, orangutan-ish alien, which him and his crew proceed to beat to death. This sets off a domino effect of action sequences that rarely lets up, pitting the plucky kids (and Sam) against the seemingly unstoppable invaders, exposing the fine line between delinquents and heroes. Without altering the film’s rapid pace or cutting into its fantastically slangy dialogue, Cornish makes some clear-headed statements about the nature of crime and the environments that breed it – the reason for the aliens’ hostility is explained logically; the hostility of the police, not so much. This makes Attack the Block something more profound than its British-Goonies-with-aliens template. Although that sounds pretty kick-ass on its own.
Flee It: Super 8
As imaginative as Steven Spielberg is, that imagination’s gotten him in trouble over the last 15 years or so. From the aliens that ruined the last half-hour of A.I. to the aliens that made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull even stupider, the legendary director has shown a disconcerting tendency to overthink. And while J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 was an homage to the director in every way, it feels more like the E.T. that the latter-day Spielberg would make, pairing a nostalgia-laced coming-of-age story with a warmed-over X-Files story arc. (After the fun, shiny stamp Abrams put on Star Trek, this was doubly disappointing.) The story surrounds Joe (Joel Courtney), a middle-school kid in 1979 who is dealing with his mother’s recent death in a factory accident. One of his coping mechanisms is to be the makeup artist on horror movie productions with his buddies. But when they capture a freak train accident on camera, and the feds swoop in, their lives change forever. I was with the movie up to this point (especially the wonderfully destructive train crash sequence), but once all this tension is established, the wheels fall off. Instead of moving the action forward, Abrams leans hard on Joe’s grief. Amidst quick scenes of an escaped creature running rampant, we get extended conversations between Joe and his friend/crush Alice (Elle Fanning). And the mystery that got us invested – what’s on that film? – is drowned in anti-climax; by the time we actually see it, we already know there’s something out there messing shit up. And everything else – the government conspiracy, the science teacher who knew too much, the alien who just wants to build a ship so he can go home already – is unforgivably cliché. Super 8 is meant to make us cry in the same healthy, cleansing way that E.T. did, but where the latter film depicted a child whose sense of wonder is overcome by a sense of loss, Abrams’ entire movie just wallows in the loss. When a smile slipped onto Moses’ face at the end of Attack the Block, I felt that warmth in my belly. When Joe taught a misguided alien how to love at the end of Super 8, a different kind of warmth shot up my esophagus.