At the beginning of this summer, I was complaining in a review about some problems I had with J. J. Abrams’s disappointing Steven Spielberg homage Super 8. I said I was tired of seeing black and minority characters killed off immediately to raise the stakes and make room for the white characters. The character design of the monster in Super 8 was highly unoriginal, too—the same kind of fleshy, long-limbed dog-beast we’ve been seeing in theaters since Ghostbusters. And the story was schmaltzy, unfunny, and didn’t provide the characters with any real motivation.
Immediately after writing that review, a friend e-mailed me. He had seen this British movie called Attack the Block at South by Southwest, he said, and he couldn’t wait for me to see it, because it was an alien invasion movie that fixed every problem I had with Super 8: It starred a cast of mostly minority actors, the alien design was highly original, the story was funny and clever, and everyone—even the aliens—had strong, meaningful motivations. My friend has good taste in movies, but I remained cautiously optimistic about Attack the Block, because it seems as though everyone leaves SXSW with stars in their eyes from all the social networking utopianism.
Turns out, I should’ve believed the hype. Attack the Block ranks up there with District 9 as one of the best alien invasion films in years (I personally prefer it to District 9, but you could make an intellectual case for either), and it’s right on time, because 2011—the year of Super 8 and Battle: Los Angeles—has been the worst year for alien invasion films in recent memory. It easily could’ve been a schlocky B movie with a somewhat interesting gimmick (aliens invade the projects of London and inner-city youth have to fight them off), but Joe Cornish’s sharp script and deft direction make it a genuine thriller, with real stakes and a seemingly limitless supply of energy.
A movie that begins with the protagonists mugging an innocent woman (a fine, understated Jodie Whittaker) requires an especially sympathetic cast. As Moses, the gang’s de facto leader, John Boyega walks a delicate line between youthful fear and grown-up swagger. He’s vulnerable and unsure of himself, but he still makes white women clutch their purses a little tighter to their sides when he passes them on the street. The ensemble follows his lead, keeping all the performances funny, but full of surprising depth.
But enough about depth and sympathy: Attack the Block is packed from beginning to end with ridiculous, glorious mayhem. There are enough samurai swords, car chases, gun battles, and shock-jumps to fill three less-ambitious invasion movies. The aliens are suitably, startlingly alien—if you haven’t seen any trailers for Attack the Block, you should allow yourself to be surprised by the design, but suffice it to say you’ve never seen creatures quite like this before—and they’re vicious buggers, too, keeping the stakes high all the way through. It’s probably the best blockbuster you’ll see this summer, and you’ll never even notice that it wasn’t produced on a blockbuster budget. Seriously: Just go see it.
Super 8 was only the first alien invasion movie to be executive-produced by Steven Spielberg this summer; he’s a force behind Jon Favreau’s less-obliquely titled Cowboys & Aliens, too. Cowboys is a more successful movie than Super 8, and it’s actually a more honest homage to early-stage Spielberg—the guy who remembered how to give audiences a good time—than the fawning Super 8. The plot comes from a (bad) comic book: Daniel Craig’s character wakes up with a nasty case of amnesia and a weird bracelet clamped around his wrist. He clashes with a craggy old bastard named Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford, doing his best work in a decade) and a town full of one-note characters played by excellent actors. You’ve got the unassertive bartender named Doc (Sam Rockwell), Dolarhyde’s spoiled-rotten son (Paul Dano), the mysterious lady (Olivia Wilde), and half a dozen others. Each has his or her own motivation, which centers, naturally, around the one personal flaw they’re trying to overcome.
And then, of course, the aliens attack. Cowboy’s aliens aren’t as original as Block’s; their motivation is cloudy, their design is stock Hollywood evil alien with one, mucous-covered surprise—it involves an extra pair of arms—added for some welcome gross-out thrills. Will Craig and his band of cowboy misfits be able to save the planet? Oh, probably, but they’ll have to ride a lot of horses, shoot a lot of six-guns, kill a whole lot of extras, and learn some valuable lessons to do it.
If this sounds like faint praise to you, that’s because it sort of is. What you have here is a perfect cast and a talented, enthusiastic director totally bringing their A-game to a somewhat generic script. Craig’s play on the Man with No Name is brutal and charismatic without being James Bond in a cowboy hat; it’s a totally different action riff. But Favreau wisely lets Ford carry the emotional weight of the movie. With a couple of mumbles and a twitch of the eye, Ford turns a generic battle scene into something very close to a genuine tearjerker, and he does it without cheapening the dignity of his character.
Every time the aliens appear, we’re treated to top-of-the-line Hollywood action spectacle in the vein of early Spielberg, but when the movie slows down for some exposition, the flimsy script pokes its head back through the special effects. Favreau, smartly, is gunning for the pacing of a traditional Hollywood western—expect long scenes of characters eyeing each other warily—but the cleverness and enthusiasm that propel the movie dry up in those scenes, too. It’s a shame that the actors have to work against their own script to bring fun and wonder to the screen. Let’s be clear, though: Cowboys & Aliens is one of the best movies of this dreadful summer movie season, and if it weren’t for Attack the Block, it probably would’ve been the best alien invasion flick of the year. Thanks to some truly unfortunate release schedule timing, though, it turns out to not even be the best alien invasion movie to come out this week.