Retro Review: Attack the Block
Before John Boyega was saving a galaxy far far away in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he was saving the UK as a young street tough defending his tenement block from invading aliens. Produced by the same people behind Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End (and sharing the comedic talents of Nick Frost) this film by first time director Joe Cornish feels right at home in the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost universe where sci-fi and horror are blended seamlessly with comedy and social satire. While those films are lighthearted romps, Attack the Block bites a bit deeper with its social commentary, though always remaining true to its horror and comedy roots.
Attack the Block (2011)
Amanada is a new resident to “the ends,” a tough neighborhood in Brixton, London. Her official welcome comes from five young men attempting to rob her at knife-point. This is our first introduction to our protagonists. After taking Amanda’s purse and ring, the mugging is interrupted by a meteorite smashing into a parked car across the street. While Amanda runs, Moses (Boyega,) the nominal leader of the group, goes to search the car for valuables. Instead of loot, he finds a blind and hairless alien which scars his face. Enraged, he chases the creature down and kills it while his crew cheer him on.
The teens are elated by their display of power, but Moses is somber: somehow he’s going to make this creature his ticket to fame and fortune. To that end, he brings the creature to Ron (Frost,) a local pot dealer with connections. Ron introduces Moses to Hi-Hatz, a mover and shaker who recruits Moses to sell drugs for him. Hi-Hatz confiscates the alien and menaces the boys into staying quiet and leaving. As they hit the street, more of the meteorites begin to pummel the neighborhood, and the boys decide they can make more money bashing up aliens than selling weed. Unfortunately, the new arrivals are much more vicious than the first creature and nearly kill the boys, forcing them to flee back into their building. Having scented the first alien on the boys, the creatures lay siege to the block. A long night of running and fighting is ahead of them.
The characters in this film are well written and acted. Each character has a funny quirk, but they resist falling into stereotypes. The real light of the film is John Boyega. As Moses, he is mature and multi-faceted, ruthless but loyal, shrewd but raw and emotional. While the other boys (all of which are memorable, especially Alex Esmail’s motor-mouth firework enthusiast, Pest) are young dumb and out for fun, we get a sense that Moses is starting to feel trapped by his routine and his surroundings. As the film goes on, we see that he has good reason to feel this way.
Nick Frost’s cowardly dealer, Esmail’s mouthy Pest, and a clueless college stoner named Brewis add much of the levity on display, keeping running jokes lightly in the air as violence and insanity break out around them. For darker tones, Moses and Amanda (Jodie Whittaker) are constantly forced into cooperation, having to hash out racial and social preconceptions of each other while dealing with the attacker/victim roles they inhabit. The two actors play off each other well, giving real heft to the mistrust and awkward alliance that results.
The action is fast and frantic, but Joe Cornish also allows time for the characters to develop and for tension to mount in between waves of alien mayhem. The reliance on character narrative is welcomed since the alien menace itself is mostly a reason to throw so many odd characters together outside of their socially constructed safety zones. While very little explanation or detail is given to the invasion, it’s hardly necessary: much like Shaun of the Dead, the creatures exist because they exist and the real meat of the plot is the way characters interact and grow underneath the pressure.
While slick and funny, Attack the Block still has teeth. The choice to show our “heroes” mug a woman at knife-point sets the stakes: this is a real neighborhood with real danger, and our protagonists are not some idealized group of kids. They enjoy the robbery, and murdering the alien, and they aren’t skittish about it. This isn’t their first dalliance with robbery and assault. That being said, we get to see these kids at home, with friends, and in their element. As a stand-in, Amanda voices many of the thoughts an audience not from the block would have, and this allows the film to create a dialogue about race, culture and privilege.
On the flip side, we see how the environment shapes the options our protagonists base their actions on. When they survive an encounter with the aliens that leave two policemen dead, the boys have to explain to Amanda that calling the cops will just mean all five will spend time in jail while the block is under attack. There’s no doubt in their minds that the authorities are just one more hostile entity they are in a life and death struggle with. When, at the end, the police finally arrive to clean up, the boys are vindicated: instead of getting the story of how Moses saved the neighborhood, they pull their guns and arrest him. There’s violence and a black teenager, so naturally one caused the other… Even when the block cheers Moses, it’s cold comfort as he is being taken away in a riot van.
Once Around the Block
If you’ve enjoyed any of the Pegg/Frost movies, you’re going to enjoy Attack on the Block. It is a rock solid sci-fi horror with comedic elements and a very strong cast, it it isn’t afraid to take on larger issues while throwing action and laughs at the screen. All throughout viewing this, I could instantly see why Boyega was snapped up to star in The Force Awakens. If he keeps making performances like this, expect him to quickly become a very recognizable face in Hollywood.