'Star Wars' Wasn't John Boyega's First Brush With Sci-Fi Greatness

Last weekend, people all over the world flooded into theaters for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," and fell fast for the charm bomb that is John Boyega thanks in no small part to his easy affability, rugged good looks, shrewd comedic timing and spot-on American accent. But as the fans around the globe cheer for Finn and ship him hard, some sci-fi fans have been reveling in a smug sense of satisfaction. See, we've known of the greatness of the English ingendude for years now.

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Back in 2011, Boyega had his breakthrough in the sick and slick sci-fi adventure "Attack the Block." And there's actually some curious similarities between it and Boyega's record-breaking blockbuster. Both involve aliens, swordplay and Boyega playing an anti-hero who's initially established as a baddie. But before you think Finn must have been an obvious casting choice for J.J. Abrams, let's talk "Attack the Block's" hard-edged hero, Moses.

Written and directed by Joe Cornish, the film begins by following a slim and skittish white woman home as she walks through some treacherous streets in London's south side. Her worry becomes justified when she's ambushed by five teens who threaten her with a knife and run off with her purse, phone and jewelry. These menacing muggers are the movie's unlikely heroes. We follow them as they crow of their criminal conquest, and encounter an otherworldly beast that seals its fate by slashing Moses across his face. His motley crew chases it down and beats to death this violent creature that looks like a mix between and "ape and a fish." But it's not. It's alien, and just the start of a long, hard night.

More aliens rain down from the sky, but these aren't the kind to be kicked to death by some stoned teenagers. Big as gorillas and just as hairy, they are blacker than the night's sky with no eyes and rows upon rows of glowing razor-sharp teeth. And they're coming for Moses. The boys initially decide to run off and dodge this war (sound familiar?), but soon realize there's no escaping these extraterrestrial beasts. And so, it's up to them -- armed with kitchen knives, baseballs bats and a collector katana -- to defend their home, a "block" of apartments.

With a budget about 1/15th of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," "Attack The Block" creates a gritty, inventive and thrilling creature feature that harkens back to the '80s heyday of "Gremlins" and all its gorier, cheaper rip-offs ("Critters," "Ghoulies," etc.) But being R-rated, it doesn't pull its punches, and the violence occasionally goes full-on midnight gore. Most impactful in its scares is the practical puppetry of its alien race, which howl with an acrid air, gnash their terrifying teeth with relish, and race with a speed that makes them the stuff of nightmares. But best of all is Boyega.

Just as in "The Force Awakens," he's introduced as a threat, his face covered, not by a Stormtrooper mask, but by a hoodie and bandana combo that leaves only his blazing eyes visible. Moses is quickly established as the takes-no-shit leader of his crew. But with that position comes a responsibility he takes seriously. Believe. Their block is a dangerous place even when it's not being attacked by aliens, thanks to trigger-happy drug dealers and handcuff-happy cops. These latchkey kids need a protector and see Moses as their hero. But "hero" is a title harder won from the wider world. When he and his mugging victim Sam (Jodie Whittaker) cross paths again, they become wary allies to survive this other worldly assault. But she initially spits when his boys call him hero. It's a word Moses still needs to earn by outsmarting these killer creatures he's led into his home turf.

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For all its incredible special effects, terrifying creature bits and thrilling action scenes, what makes "Attack the Block" linger is its challenging theme, which demands audiences reconsider their preconceived notions. Misjudging people and situations leads to disaster throughout the narrative, be it the boys accidentally mugging a neighbor they assumed had wandered into the wrong territory, or their neighbors dismissing their warnings of aliens as ridiculous, or underestimating what a few underprivileged teens can do when faced with world-threatening peril.

Boyega shoulders the film's theme in its explosive finale. And he does it with a fire in his eyes and chip on his shoulder that makes his performance wildly compelling. As he's since shown on the "Star Wars" press tour, he's a handsome young man with a radiant smile and megawatt charisma to match. But here, he's channeling fear and anger through glares, grunted lines and action, action, action. In two movies, this actor has shown more range than some have in their entire careers. For the strange similarities these two celebrated sci-fi films contain, the most important is Boyega and his blistering and bold performances.

"Attack the Block" is available now on Blu-ray and for rent or purchase on iTunes, Vudu and Google Play.

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