2011 was not a banner year for the Hollywood blockbuster. Bloated sequels and limp comic-book adaptations had made a trip to the multiplex a dismal choose-your-own-adventure of mediocrity. What made Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block so fresh and lively in comparison to its American counterparts? On the surface, it appears to be another hyperactive geek fantasy about prepubescent kids saving the world, a narrative we’ve already explicitly seen once this year already (JJ Abrams’s would-be opus Super 8), not to mention the general glut of alien-invasion flicks.
What immediately distinguishes Attack the Block from its American counterparts is its willingness to risk alienating the audience from the opening seconds. Our first view of Moses (intense, charismatic John Boyega in his first acting role) and his young gang of hoods is not a pleasant one; they surround and intimidate a nurse, Sam (Jodie Whittaker) as she comes home from work. They proceed to mug her, even prying a ring off of one of her fingers, until their attack is interrupted by what appears to be a comet, which collides with a nearby vehicle. Moses, ever the fearless leader despite being only fifteen, ventures in, and earns a gnarly facial scar for his troubles. The diminutive creature that wounded him scampers off, and the kids follow, swearing to “merc” it with their various weapons, which they do, and proceed to parade the tiny corpse around like a trophy, hoping to learn of its origin from National Geographic addict and pot-grower Ron (Nick Frost).
Painting your adorable heroes as merciless thugs with a compunction for mugging women and an eagerness for violence is hardly the most direct route to audience sympathy. By opening the film showing us these kids at their worst, Cornish demonstrates his confidence in the material and his willingness to not coddle his audience, two characteristics that thankfully hold up through the entire film.
As the boys come home in the wake of the attack, it becomes clear that the gang lives in the same council-estate unit (the UK equivalent of a housing project) as their human victim from earlier in the evening, and when the baddies begin to rain down from the cosmos – this time in considerable numbers and much greater size – they must reluctantly band together to survive, along with upper-class pothead Brewis (a very funny Luke Treadaway). To match the alien threat, there’s the constant spectre of the police, as well as Ron’s boss, the simultaneously ludicrous and dangerous Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter).
Attack the Block Shames Watered-Down Hollywood Summer Fare
Despite the young cast, this is not some watered-down PG-13 affair. The language is salty, and our young heroes are not at all invincible. Extending its willingness to not water down the material (which also includes to the kids’ nonstop South London slang and thick accents, which likely render mass North American acceptance of the movie impossible), Attack never lets you forget the most important driving factor a film of this nature can have: these kids are in real danger. Super 8 conjured up a massive, spectacular train crash and then stuck its young heroes in its midst, but there’s never a moment’s doubt that they’ll all escape unscathed. Attack offers none of that safety, offering a constant sense of unease to go with the consistent laughs. It helps that the creatures are brilliantly realized using a combination of costume work and CGI, appearing as hulking black ape-dogs with glow-in-the-dark fangs instead of eyes – and it also helps that they never silently rhapsodize about their feelings.
The film’s technical brilliance – which extends to great makeup and gore effects, as well as DP Thomas Townend’s appropriately grimy color scheme and canny framing – would mean nothing if it weren’t for the young cast that features in nearly every second of the film. Cast for their age, regional authenticity and comic chemistry, they evoke just the right balance of innocence and street smarts, never keeping their underlying fear too far submerged. Leeon Jones – another first-timer – especially stands out in this sense for his bookworm apparel and barely-hidden terror, brought out most clearly in a tense sequence in a smoke-obscured hallway. As a variant of the audience surrogate, Jodie Whittaker is just right, taking the boys to task for their cruel behavior without becoming too sanctimonious.
In crafting the entire affair as a delivery device for ideas about modern youth and personal responsibility (the film shares with producer Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead the idea of the horror-quest as a growth-into-manhood metaphor), Cornish only occasionally falters. A late scene in which Sam discovers the true nature of Moses’s home life is a little too blunt – the earlier, ominous shot of his apartment’s doorway, with its hidden darknesses, would have sufficed. Additionally, the film’s attempt to equate the initial scuffle with the invaders with Moses’s other moral trespasses is inexact at best. Still, Cornish generally manages a compassionate tone that doesn’t stoop to treacle.
That idea of balance is key to the success of Attack the Block – scary but not too scary, funny but with respect for its characters, specific to its cultural geography but universal in its ideas, rapidly-paced but always clearly staged. Beholden to any number of spiritual forbears (from The Warriors to the unproduced John Sayles script Night Skies, hailed by Cornish in promotional materials), Attack the Block nevertheless emerges as very much its own movie – one fiercer, faster and funnier than any of its peers.