Photo: ‘Attack the Block’/Optimum Releasing
I was admittedly late to the game when it came to Joe Cornish’s ‘Attack the Block’. When it first came out ten years ago—the film made its world premiere at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival on March 12, 2011—I recall reading the accompanying response: praise for the film’s deft and fun mix of science fiction, comedy, and horror, as well as the lead performance at the heart of the film courtesy of a then-unknown John Boyega in his debut role.
It’s a film I’d been meaning to watch, but I kept putting it off and never got around to it even as Boyega achieved mainstream recognition thanks to his turn as Finn in the new ‘Star Wars’ trilogy. And through it all I kept hearing good things about the film; I knew that it didn’t light the box office on fire when it first came out but has since gone on to become a cult classic with a devoted following.
Well, having finally seen it this week I can tell you that the good word-of-mouth is legit. ‘Attack the Block’ is a funny, engaging, and very fun sci-fi horror-comedy. And after watching this film, you’ll understand how Boyega became a star in the years that followed.
Inner City vs. Outer Space
Taking place on Guy Fawkes Night in South London, nurse Samantha (Jodie Whittaker) is returning home from work only to be mugged by a gang of teenage hoodlums: Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones), Biggz (Simon Howard), and their leader Moses (Boyega). However, the mugging is interrupted when a meteor carrying a hostile alien creature crashes nearby. The gang kills it but their celebrations are cut short when larger and more dangerous alien invaders come crashing down near their council estate, and it becomes clear that they’re targeting the gang. Armed with their wits and whatever weapons they can find, it’s now up to the gang to take down the aliens and save their home.
‘Attack the Block’ serves as a feature debut for writer-director Cornish (who started out working in television), but it already exhibits a great deal of confidence in filmmaking. On a visual level, the film is effective, with Cornish doing a great job of capturing a sense of atmosphere. He makes the most of the film’s setting, leveraging the tower block’s tight hallways, stairwells, elevators, and various rooms to his advantage in crafting tense and engaging sequences.
The film is also atmospherically lit, through moody exterior nighttime lights as well as the block’s use of fluorescent lighting. Cornish is clearly working with a low budget here, which means going by ‘Jaws’ rules in withholding giving us a clear look at the aliens until later in the film. But in turn he makes effective use of shadows in concealing his alien monsters. This dovetails into their design—as “big gorilla wolf motherfuckers”, to quote the characters, with inky pitch-black fur and glow-in-the-dark blue neon fangs. Even once we get a better look at them, their design is still pretty cool.
A Fun Genre Throwback With Good Performances
The film’s influences are pretty clear. There’s a Spielbergian/Amblin-esque feel to the proceedings in terms of the energy and enthusiasm on display, calling to mind the ‘Gremlins’ films or even ‘E.T’ and ‘The Goonies’ but in a distinctly R-rated form. The works of John Carpenter also come to mind, especially siege films like ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ with people on opposite sides forced to work together. So while it does riff on some very American movies and tells a fairly straightforward alien invasion story, Cornish (with support from executive producer Edgar Wright) manages to give it a British flavor.
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It’s apparent in the heavy use of London slang, as well as the slick British electronica score from Steven Price (who’d go on to compose one of my favorite film scores in recent years with ‘Gravity’) and British electronic music group Basement Jaxx, and the type of humor which isn’t so much laugh-out-loud funny but rather quite witty at times. And Cornish and his team succeed in walking a tonal fine line, striking the perfect balance between funny and serious. So while it can be a pretty tense and scary movie, it’s also a very fun one too.
Cornish is also aided by a strong cast. While the secondary characters aren’t as fleshed out compared to leads Moses and Sam, they’re still appealing thanks to the young actors’ performances. Other standouts in the cast include Edgar Wright regular Nick Frost as droll weed dealer Ron; Luke Treadaway as Brewis, an awkward middle-class white kid who gets caught up in the chaos; and Sammy Williams & Michael Ajao as Probs & Mayhem, two little kids who desperately want in on the action. As the female lead, Jodie Whittaker delivers an appealing performance: her Samantha is smart, tough, and resourceful. And she and John Boyega have a great dynamic together as their characters find themselves teamed up and their adversarial relationship turns to one of mutual trust and respect.
This brings us to John Boyega. I’m just going to say it: he’s fantastic here. Watching his performance, he’s electric and radiates charisma the moment he’s onscreen and can convey so much emotion with just a gaze. His Moses is a conflicted anti-hero with a sad backstory, whose stoic bravado masks the scared and wounded kid he really is. He starts in a place of selfishness, but as he sees how his reckless actions are causing so much suffering he learns to take responsibility and steps up to become a hero. And Boyega absolutely sells it: it’s easy to see here what drew J.J. Abrams’ interest, leading to him casting Boyega in ‘The Force Awakens’.
On that note, it’s funny how three of the film’s cast members would go on to become future sci-fi stars. In addition to Boyega, there’s also Whittaker, who went on to be the first woman to play the title role in ‘Doctor Who’. And Franz Drameh went on to play Jefferson Jackson/Firestorm in the first three seasons of ‘DC’s Legends of Tomorrow’ on The CW.
‘Attack the Block’ — As Social Commentary and a Rebuttal to “Hoodie Horror”
While Cornish doesn’t belabor it, the film also has a bit of social commentary. For starters, it doesn’t help that Moses and his friends’ environment is already dangerous even before the aliens invade. At the start Moses is already being recruited to be a drug dealer by Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), the closest this movie has to a human antagonist; later Hi-Hatz is so single-minded in his goal to get even with the kids and kill Moses due to a perceived slight that he doesn’t care about the aliens, showing the persistent threat of real gangsters like him.
Then there’s the looming issue of the police: Samantha suggests calling them to deal with the aliens, but a common refrain among the boys is that they can’t trust the police, who are more likely to just blame and arrest the youths for all the deaths and mayhem. At one point Moses even posits that the aliens might be part of a government plot to expedite the deaths of Black youths; while not quite true, it’s believable they’d think that knowing what they (and we) know about the fraught tensions between people of color and governments.
One of the more prevalent trends in British horror/thriller films to emerge in the mid-to-late 2000s is a subgenre known as “hoodie horror”, where young lower-class delinquents are portrayed as sadistic thugs and villains. These films are sometimes set in England’s low-income council estates and reflect a conservative (and sometimes middle-class) fear and anxiety of a “Broken Britain‘, a theme coined by the conservative newspaper The Sun and popularized by the Conservative Party (the Tories): of moral and social decay due to poverty, rising crime, growing family breakdown, simmering class and racial tensions, and juvenile delinquency. In particular, the fear of working-class urban youths is exemplified through hoodies becoming a negative symbol associated with bad behavior and troublemaking, and intimidating teens.
Some examples include the Michael Caine revenge thriller ‘Harry Brown’, as well as horror films like ‘Eden Lake’, ‘Cherry Tree Lane’, and ‘Citadel’. “I’m scared of these kids in gangs. They have no respect for any other part of society…We’re afraid of what we don’t understand or know, and there’s so much about these kids we just don’t understand. That’s a good starting point for any film baddie”, says ‘Harry Brown’ director Daniel Barber. ‘Eden Lake’ director James Watkins echoes that sentiment, saying that while his film isn’t an attack on any particular social group, it’s rooted in a recognizable fear: “It’s a very primal fear, the fear of the dark or a fear of violence, fear of children — these are very real fears which go very deep in today’s society”.
However British cinema has also attempted to portray urban youths with empathy and nuance through dramas like ‘Fish Tank’. And likewise ‘Attack the Block’ serves as a response to the “hoodie horror” films, and of not judging by first impressions. The boys in the film are introduced in an unsympathetic light, mugging a defenseless woman. But a point the film makes is that this event doesn’t show their full character. What Cornish does here is interesting: while he doesn’t excuse the boys’ actions—with Samantha frequently reminding them of how they mugged her, and others pointing out how their actions are what caused the community to be invaded by the aliens in the first place—he avoids moralizing and doesn’t necessarily judge them either.
The movie is very much interested in humanizing Moses and his friends: we see them hang out, shooting the breeze and talking about girls, and in a montage, we see that most of them live in relative comfort with caring guardians. We realize that the menacing image they convey at the start is just a front: a bit of performative masculinity imitating real criminals like Hi-Hatz. We’re reminded that they’re just kids and that they’re scared, which makes it all the more heartbreaking that not all of them survive the night, and all the more satisfying when they rise up to the challenge to protect their neighborhood.
‘Attack the Block’ shares the same issue as ‘The Nice Guys’ (which we also recently covered) in that it’s a critically acclaimed, entertaining, and straight-up fun film that unfortunately not a lot of people saw in North America, with the U.S distributor essentially dumping the film with little marketing. But word-of-mouth (thanks to the SXSW screening) kept the film’s reputation going as people gradually discovered it on home video and TV. And Cornish recently shared that he and Boyega are already mulling over a possible sequel.
Like all great science fiction movies with sequel potential, the prospect of revisiting the ‘Attack the Block’ universe is an appealing one. But even if it doesn’t pan out we’ll still have this film. It’s a great example of how a shift in perspective can help enliven a well-worn narrative and make it feel fresh. And it’s a very enjoyable horror-comedy that’s sure to entertain.
Writer/Director: Joe Cornish | Producer: Nira Park, James Wilson | Cinematography: Thomas Townend | Music: Steven Price, Basement Jaxx
Cast: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail, Franz Drameh, Leeon Jones, Simon Howard, Nick Frost, Luke Treadaway, Jumayn Hunter, Danielle Vitalis, Paige Meade, Sammy Williams, Michael Ajao
By Mario Yuwono
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