Attack the Block (2011)

August 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

The gang of South London street hood anti-heroes in Joe Cornish's 'Attack the Block'

Written and Directed by Joe Cornish

Produced by Edgar Wright

Starring John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Jumayn Hunter, Luke Treadaway and Nick Frost

There’s something to be said for today’s edgier story telling on television and in cinema. Gone are the morality tales that pull their punches in favor of easily digestible family friendly ‘troubled youth’ cinema like ‘Stand by Me’ or ‘My Bodyguard’ and in its place we have urban story telling of truly wayward youths who you don’t want to hug so much as keep your distance from and shake your head that there’s probably nothing you can do to civilize them. However, much like the wars we fight over seas, sometimes the most reliable defense against an unbiased all-encompassing enemy, such as a foreign army- or in this case aliens- are those too far gone wayward youths. The same lack of empathy or fear that enables these young men to rob, beat and kill is the same drive that makes them our most valuable asset in times of greater strife. Such is the case in the new British indie sci-fi flick ‘Attack the Block’.

Imagine if the kids from the fourth season of HBO’s ‘the Wire’ were crossed with the kids from ‘Stand by Me’ and then transplanted to the block housing in South London, then have them attacked by Ridley Scott’s ‘Aliens’ and you’ve got ‘Attack the Block’. It’s interesting to note that these British urban youth utilize American urban slang like “5-Oh” and “Po-pop” to describe police officers. A result, I am sure, of listening to American hip-hop.

I think one reason genre pictures (comedies, horror, sci-fi, action) get such a bad rap is that most people making genre pictures aren’t aiming very high. They strive to meet the cliche expectations of previous entries and entertain the lowest common denominator of the potential audience, because it’s easy to be cliche and it’s easy to give people what they have seen before. ‘Attack the Block’, like so many newer films, has side stepped such cliches by mashing many time tested genres into one very unique, intelligent and highly entertaining film. Four tweenage hoodlums are roaming the streets of South London looking for an easy mugging target. It appears to be old hat to them and while they don’t appear particularly dangerous, their victim knows better than to protest too much or risk testing their criminal acumen. As they proceed to rob her for everything but her clothes, a fiery object tears down at them from the heavens, destroying an innocent Beamer sitting just to their left. The girl gets up and runs, but the boys, being tough guys, decide to investigate. Something attacks them and instead of running away, finding a cop and hiding at home like logical grown ups, they see an opportunity for revenge, adventure and to establish how tough they are by hunting this thing. Aaand we’re off to the races! The creatures hunt the kids, the kids hunt the creatures, aliens and men alike die horrifically bloody deaths, lots of make shift weapons are used and there’s a big explosive finale. It all sounds kind of formulaic, right? Well…not so much.

The kids casts in this film are very charismatic and against type for the hero roles. They aren’t taking up this mission to save London from these aliens (though they acknowledge that this would be a direct result of their endeavors if they succeeded and agree that it’d be a cool thing), they don’t feel forced to fend for themselves, they admit multiple times that they could just go back to their respective apartments, play video games and chill out until the whole thing blows over. However, being that they’re a bunch of tough street kids, it’d be more fun to spend the night battling monsters, so that’s precisely what they do. In that respect, this is the most honest alien film I have ever seen. Sure, people run from dangerous creatures and sure, some of us have more inherent survival skills than others, but teenagers are out to prove themselves, are bored by the monotony of living at home and feeling trapped by the confines of being under age and the possibility of fighting aliens simply offers them a chance to live out their child hood fantasies. This is ironic as a reality-within-fiction premise, but it still makes perfect sense. That’s all the motivation they need; fighting monsters is cool, fun, it’s exciting and empowering.

The film quickly confines itself to the urban development apartment complex the boys live in. They discover that their mugging victim lives in the same complex and the two opposing sides agree to team up for the greater cause of their survival. Once again- people are killed, monsters are killed, we get some ‘gotchya’ scare shots, chases, etc. Plus a bunch of side characters like a local gangster heavy and his co-horts, along with some friendly neighborhood pot heads (lead by the always lovable and scene-stealing Nick Frost and relative newbie Luke Treadaway as an intelligent stoner).

The leader of the gang is Moses, whose name I am sure is no coincidence (he lives with his uncle who we don’t see, there’s no mention of his parents and he leads his gang out of trouble more often than not). Moses is played by John Boyega, in his first movie role, according to IMDb. He’s superb. He has a quiet stoic pride to himself. He’s not a hero, he’s not an ass hole, he’s not an introvert, he just appears to choose his words carefully, makes up his mind confidently and carries himself with the swagger of a leader, not a follower. He doesn’t have as many lines as most of the other kids, who are a somewhat interchangeable group of motor mouths of various ethnicities and temperaments. One is a small stature motormouth, one is a quiet, thoughtful kid with glasses, etc. They really do fit the ‘Stand by Me’ archetypes as filtered through modern urban settings.

Attack the Block is a fun film. It doesn’t look cheap but they do use tricks to save money on the creature effects, using a strange deep black design for the aliens so that there isn’t much detail in the creatures and keeping carnage shoots brief and chaotic. There’s one death that is shown at a sideways angle but if you tilt your head the bloody make up is quite startling.

There isn’t much more to say as it is still a monster movie in an urban setting, so it’s pretty easy to fill in the details of the kind of characters you encounters. Gangsters, stoners, wanna-be gangsters, and some innocent folk. The mugging victim who ends up in cahoots with the wayward youths is played by actress Jodie Whittaker, who most audiences might not recognize, though she showed up in a similarly satisfying smaller film called ‘White Wedding’, a romantic road trip comedy set in South Africa.

All in all, Attack the Block is a somewhat low-budget, by-the-numbers genre feature that makes it all feel fresh and exciting again. In some respects, that’s the best kind of genre movie one can ask for. The formulas are utilized because they work, but in the hands of an intelligent and inventive writer, the formulas can feel as fresh as ever. Attack the Block is a reinvigoration of the creature feature and worthy of all its praise. I hope it finds a wider audience because for all the crappy B-slasher flicks that come out a dime a dozen and gross $40 million dollars state side, none of them have half the charm, ingenuity or character depth of ‘Block’.


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