As a group of teenage thugs approach their intended victim (only their eyes are visible as they glare at the trainee nurse who's walking the cold south London streets alone on the way home from her shift), you'll be forgiven if you recall the recent wave of rioting in the UK. Especially since race is involved — these aimless young "hoodies" are black and the young girl, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), is white. They corner her as she talks on the phone to her mum and relieve her of the phone, what little cash she has, and a beloved ring she's hesitant to give up.
But then, something really interesting happens. Novice writer/director Joe Cornish doesn't follow the terrorized girl — he follows the terrorizers.
But first, he introduces aliens. Not the illegal kind — the invaders-from-space kind.
Hit by a falling meteor, a parked car explodes, allowing Sam just the distraction she needs to escape her attackers. For their part, the hoodies, led by 15-year-old Moses (a star turn by newcomer John Boyega), are about to move beyond being the faceless thugs the media loves to report on. Instead, Cornish's smart, efficient script begins to establish Moses and his band — including Pest (Alex Esmail) and Biggz (Simon Howard) — as heroic archetypes rather than stereotypes.
These underprivileged, underclass kids approach thuggery as a lark, a break from boredom, and when that first alien crash lands on the nearby car, the gang chases the slimy, fanged little devil into a bordering park. Backing it into a small shed, the boys bombard the invader with fireworks, and then beat it to death with bats.
"Welcome to London, motherfucker!" blurts one of the youths, and you might smile as you acknowledge, "Hey, I'm beginning to like these hoodies." Even as you struggle (at first) to understand some of their slang, bruv.
Sure, you understand when an old lady in the neighborhood calls the boys "fucking monsters," but she has yet to see the second wave of bigger, badder beasties that are about to arrive: dark and fur-covered, like apes crossed with wolves, their most prominent feature are their massive luminescent fangs.
But I'm getting ahead of the plot.
Moses and his boys drag the dead toothy terror back to their block, bringing it into the apartment of stoned drug dealer Ron (Nick Frost), who mistakes it for some sort of puppet, before concluding: "Maybe there was a party at the zoo, and a monkey fucked a fish."
You'll recognize Frost from such action comedies as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (the film is produced by Edgar Wright, director and co-writer of those pictures). But given the early-Carpenter feel of the film (including a sometimes clunky, less-is-more approach), and even though Cornish is a noted comedian in England, the focus here falls squarely on the action. Sure, there are a few laughs, but they're born of the characters and their situation, as their 'hood is transformed into an extraterrestrial war zone.
And still another interesting thing occurs: the victim joins her attackers. This isn't a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Sam bonds with the boys, fighting alongside them as the larger threat reveals itself (and they realize they reside in the same building), and she, like us, discovers that these are just a bunch of scared kids who society has pushed into a corner.
That, and so much more.