Attack the Block, 2011.
Written and Directed by Joe Cornish.
Starring Nick Frost, Jodie Whittaker, Luke Treadaway, John Boyega, Alex Esmail and Simon Howard.
When aliens invade a South London council estate, it's left to a teenage street gang to try and save the day.
“He’s much taller in real life”, I thought, “and that’s when a little hunched too”. Joe Cornish ambled across the cinema screen to stand before us. He thanked Channel 4 for his breaks in life; a first job in production; giving him and his friend Adam Buxton their first show; partly funding his debut film that we were about to watch. If it weren’t for them, he imagined in a desperate alternate reality, he’d be holed up somewhere taking crack with his prossie girlfriend right now. “Shouldn’t have said ‘prossie’,” he quickly self-flagellated under his breath. As a listener of the Adam and Joe podcasts, watching him speak felt disorientating. My mind dismembered voice from mouth as though it were a very good piece of dubbing. It’s like the first time you ever saw John Motson. But to the film…
Attack the Block pits the inhabitants of a Brixton council estate, which they defensively refer to as “the Block”, against a very localised alien invasion (note: not ‘global’). The film opens on Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a nurse returning home to the Block, when a gang of hooded teenagers block her way. Their faces are obscured by shadow and the night takes care of the rest. Two of them flank Sam on their bikes to surround her. Their leader, Moses (John Boyega), demands her wallet and the ring around her finger. Shaking, she struggles to remove it quick enough, so Moses pushes her to the tarmac.
You’d expect Sam to be the protagonist here. Well, she’s kinda a co-protagonist later on, but it’s the gang who are the film’s heroes. Yeah, the ones who just mugged a defenceless lady – a white lady at that. When a piece of the sky crushes a nearby car, harbouring inside it a lean, sharp-toothed alien, your appetite begins to whet for the gang’s bloody demise. After all, it’s an established sci-fi/horror convention – the bad guys get ate. But instead it is they who kill the monster, impaling it on a stick with the same aggressiveness they exerted on Sam. You see, they aren’t the real bad guys. They could be, in time, but they’re still kids here.
It’s easy to forget that they’re only young because they’re so intimidating at first. But Cornish admirably reveals the gang’s age by humanising them with perceptive details (“I wanna go home and play Fifa”) and shows them as the youths demonised and ignored by society (unless for a knife-crime statistic). It makes it harder to blame them for bullying the street corners. They mooch back to the Block on their mobile phones, each moaning to their elders about staying out a little longer. You get little snippets from their conversations. They’re talking to grandmothers or uncles, not mothers and fathers. It’s safe to assume the homes to which they return are ‘broken’.
As they walk to the Block, the depth of the film’s cast is realised; Moses, and the other four who comprise his gang, are significantly developed; Probs and Mayhem, two pre-teens who want to join Moses’ gang are introduced; Brewis, a posh University graduate from Fulham, is sorely out of place and looking to buy weed; and Ron (Nick Frost), who gets stoned and watches the Discovery channel all day. That’s why he’s the best person to take the alien’s corpse to – he might be able to tell them what it is, and more importantly, if it’s worth any money. They seem quite preoccupied with this, like most kids who go through a spell of hyper-capitalist entrepreneurialism. I once set up a shop underneath my stairs when I was about eight, convinced I’d earn my fortune. At least I had stairs. They only have the stairwells that connect the Block’s floors.
When the alien ships start to crash to earth around the Block, camouflaged by the firework displays that litter the night’s sky, these brief introductions of supporting characters allows the film to effortlessly cut between them and their different sub-plots later on. But what of the monsters! Their jaws light up with a neon blue, but the rest of their furry bodies are so black they merge with the dark. That’s pretty handy when you consider the cost of puppetry and CGI. It’s called making your budget work for you. You never see enough of the monsters to make out their flaws, and it is this secrecy that makes them relentlessly terrifying. That’s called positive feedback. Germain Lussier at SlashFilm, who called the film a “genre-bending, cult classic in the making”, pointed out how Attack the Block imposes its geeky passion upon the viewer. It “elicits the kind of nostalgia that’ll make fans want to own and display tiny replicas of its protagonists and antagonists.” It’s an odd compliment, but an acute one. Journey into a Forbidden Planet and you’ll see the hordes of McFarlane miniatures of Spawn and Halo exhibited in glass cases. Look a little further on and you’ll see ones from The Warriors and Shaun of the Dead. Hopefully soon they’ll be accompanied by a range of Attack the Block’s monster plushies.
So the monsters proceed to attack the gang, and sometimes the gang attack the monsters, but the teenagers are loosing and get pushed higher and higher up the Block. The film isn’t sloppy though - all this action is fully supported by plot. Why, for example, do the aliens seem to be exclusively targeting them? We must also not forget Attack the Block’s wicked sense of humour and its occasional treats of inspired gore.
Cornish said before the film began that he was influenced by the monster films he watched growing up as a 80s child like Predator, Gremlins and Critters (it does sometimes feel as though he’s channelling Joe Dante). And just like those films, Attack the Block makes you want to have children just so you can scare the shit out of them from an early age.
Walking home at just gone 10pm, after seeing Attack the Block, you realise just how well it was photographed. Every frame captures the urban night. Illumination comes from car headlights, streetlights and mobile phones. It’s all unnaturally piercing, yet at the same time, for those who live in the built up areas similar to the Block, there’s a familiarity to be found in their electric glow. You really appreciate your estate’s orange bath after that, and then maybe you’ll start to understand the youths that share…shhh! Did you see that? Over there, in the corner, just out of the lamppost’s peripherals…
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