Attack the Block reminds us why alien invasion flicks are awesome

Movie gives thrilling new meaning to the term British Invasion

In the English sci-fi comedy Attack the Block, a familiar form of urban anxiety serves as a prelude to the madcap monster thrills to come. Beneath the fireworks of Guy Fawkes Night, a young nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker) walks home to a working-class council estate — what we'd call a "housing project" in the United States. She quails at the sight of some rough-looking teenagers on the sidewalk, and when they mug her, her paranoia turns out to be justified.

In Attack the Block, class hostility and racial tension provide context for the fast-paced action and breezy comedy to come. Writer/director Joe Cornish took inspiration from his own mugging in South London to give social relevance to his thoroughly entertaining exploitation flick, in which beasties from outer space make a bad neighborhood even worse.

Shortly after the robbery a shooting star crashes on the street, unleashing a violent, jabbering little creature. Moses (John Boyega), the gang's taciturn, intimidating young leader, kills the alien and his mouthy sidekicks discuss how to cash in on the "monkey fish." But more meteorites release bigger, deadlier entities resembling shaggy gorillas, and their ravenous appetites put "the block" under siege.

Cornish employs the low-budget alien marauders so effectively that they never come across like bargain-basement Halloween costumes. They sport luminescent teeth, for instance, so their fangs glow in darkened corridors like cannibal Cheshire cats. Attack the Block also deserves credit for avoiding the clichéd kind of biomechanical, insectoid design of seemingly every other alien film.

Fate keeps putting Sam and her young assailants in the same places until they become reluctant allies. One of the boys admits that if they'd known Sam was a neighbor on the block, they never would've mugged her — a sentiment that doesn't exactly comfort her. Meanwhile, Moses considers whether he should become a career criminal or take direct responsibility for his actions. Boyega gives a quietly charismatic performance as Moses, akin to Denzel Washington in his teenage years.

Attack the Block's serious ideas never diminish its spirited sense of humor. Once you acclimate to the thick accents and slang you'll appreciate the script's wicked one-liners. When the kids discuss the dead alien, one worries, "The F.B.I. will confiscate it from you." "The FBI?" another replies. "We're in England." The young protagonists outwit cops and druglords while battling the creatures with every weapon at their disposal, including fireworks, decorative swords and sports equipment.

Cornish belongs to the same creative circle as Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, and casts their frequent co-star Nick Frost as a pot-dealing shut-in. Like Wright's breakthrough film Shaun of the Dead, Attack the Block puts a hip English stamp on a junky American genre. Shaun of the Dead brilliantly satirized the kind of self-absorbed hipsters who wouldn't notice a zombie holocaust taking place right under their noses. Attack the Block, however well-executed, has a narrower vision and serves as a jokey throwback to early John Carpenter films like Assault on Precinct 13.

Nevertheless, Cornish makes inexpensive, chilling, socially conscious comedy look so easy, you'll wonder why Hollywood's humorous thrillers that cost twice as much aren't half as good. Cornish, Wright and company so joyfully execute their clever ideas, they've launched the most welcome British invasion since the heyday of the Animals and the Zombies.