A love letter to both sci-fi movies of the 1980's and the poor disenfranchised youths of today, Attack the Block looks like what would happen if the kids from The Wire are suddenly thrown into the middle of Gremlins. Obviously, bodies start to drop.
It’s nice to see a sci-fi comedy that doesn’t rely on spoofs, references or physical gags. Downright remarkable, actually. The humor of the piece rely partly on social satire and mostly on sharp one-liners. Despite having the obvious and simplistic us-against-them monster movie pattern, Attack the Block feels incredibly fresh and energetic. When one character is asked to let everyone know about the alien invasion via text message, he hilariously blurts out, “This is way too much madness to explain in one text!” The situation isn’t really complex enough for that to be true, but in the heat of the moment, the way writer/director Joe Cornish cranks the film, we believe that this shit is in fact too wild for one text.
It’s the 5th of November and London is all abuzz with fireworks. Five teenage ruffians from “the block” attack a helpless woman on her way home and snatch all her belongings, but the mugging is interrupted by a fireball from the sky that flattens a nearby car. From the wreckage emerge a small alien creature. Seeing themselves as the superior species, gang leader Moses rouses the kids to beat up the alien to death and parade its corpse around the block as their prized kill. Their place of pride is a public housing complex and its immediate neighborhood in South London’s decayed urban area. These kids sell weed and stick up pedestrians not because they have to, but just to pass the night. So when more aliens drop down from the sky, they don’t hesitate to grab their household hoodlum weapons (bat, fireworks, switchblade, etc) and go on the hunt, not realizing that the second batch of aliens are bigger, deadlier and tend to run in packs.
The aliens are basically animals (purposefully so, for the film to make its point about social hierarchy) with void-black fur and blue luminous razor-teeth, looking like they just stepped right out of a Gorillaz music video. The kids simply refer to them as “big gorilla wolf motherfuckers.” As foil for the humans, the aliens are pretty standard on the threat-side; but they look vinyl-figure cool, and their main function is just to force the characters to go places Cornish wanted them to, anyway. Places like the realization that “survival of the fittest” could be a deeply flawed rule to go by. In the film’s preachiest—but well-deserved—moment, Moses is told that “actions have consequences,” and now his has doomed the block. All because of misplaced pride and youthful zest that weren't channeled into something other than violence.
With this kind of fun, juicy premise, most genre filmmakers would settle for having likable “everyman” characters that the audience can relate to and root for for the duration of the story, but Cornish set himself up for a challenge by making his protagonists a bunch of puberty-stricken unrepentant thugs, led by a teenage hardass who’s still in the process of calibrating his personal moral scale. Cornish went through the trouble because there is an actual real-world point to his little alien invasion shenanigans, first by getting us immersed in the habits and language of these inner-city kids. The real surprise in Attack the Block is how fascinating Moses is as a character (and how charismatic John Boyega, a first-timer like all the other kids, is in the role), as we see this boy balance himself between what he knows he’s capable of being and the set trajectory his social standing as a poor black kid affords him.
There’s a moment where the white mugging victim, who had resented and written Moses' gang off as the “fucking monsters" of society, has to perform a task that requires her to take a peek into Moses’ daily life. Rather than give us a sob story to absolve Moses, Cornish lets the kid's background stay hanging, relying on the audience to understand Moses’ story just by being cognizant of the reality of certain aspects of urban culture. It’s the same perspective that allows us to hear Moses bitterly theorize that the aliens are sent by the government “to kill black boys, ‘cause we ain’t killing each other fast enough” and not immediately scoff at the suggestion, since whatever the scenario is makes very little difference to him. Staying alive is just another day. After all, Moses spends the entire movie running away not only from killer monsters, but also his drug boss, who intends to kill Moses for what he perceived as disrespect.
But the most impressive handling of Moses as a protagonist is in the way the film ends at the absolute perfect moment. Cornish allows the block—and the audience—to fully get behind Moses as a hero without sweeping his criminal misdeeds under a rug. Just one scene before or after where the film ends, and we’d have to morally weigh where Moses stands, but Cornish very smartly pulls the plug at the coolest, most bittersweet high point; freeing us to walk out with the guilt-free assurance that this movie is a ton of fun.
"Attack the Block" opens July 29, 2011 and is rated R. Action, Comedy, Sci-Fi. Written and directed by Joe Cornish. Starring Nick Frost, John Boyega, Alex Esmail, Franz Drameh, Leeon Jones, Simon Howard, Jodie Whittaker, Luke Treadaway.