Written and Directed by: Joe Cornish
Starring: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, and Alex Esmail
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“That's an alien bruv, believe it.”
One of the (many) disadvantages of living in the middle of nowhere is the constant feeling of being left out of a party, at least cinematically speaking. So many films garner buzz on festival circuits and never see the light of day around here until they hit DVD; I thought for sure that same fate awaited Attack the Block, which emerged as the darling from this year’s South by Southwest Festival way back in March. Imagine my surprise when it popped up on a local theater listing this past weekend, as, apparently, Screen Gems has decided to open the film in wide release and inexplicably with little to no fanfare. It’s a shame too because they have a real winner on their hands, as everything you’ve heard about Attack the Block is true.
As fireworks explode over London (for what I presume are Guy Fawkes celebrations), a small alien creature lands in “The Ends,” where Moses (John Boyega) and his gang have just mugged a nurse (Jodie Whittaker). When the teens stumble upon the creature, they manage to track it down and kill it before carrying it around like a trophy. This only seems to draw the ire of the rest of the extraterrestrial species, which lands and begins to terrorize the gang. Everyone is forced to band together and take arms (be it a baseball bat, an Super Soaker, or even a samurai sword) to defend their block.
This is such a thoroughly, geeky genre movie that almost feels like a bowl of cinematic soup. Imagine a cup of Critters with a dash of The Warriors with a little bit of The Goonies and Assault on Precinct 13 thrown in for good measure. It actually begins with what seems to be a nod to another Carpenter movie, The Thing, so you know where its heart is almost immediately (it even carries a sort of minimalist, techno score that remind you of Carpenter at times). However, despite its pastiche nature, Attack the Block feels so invigorating and fresh, perhaps because it's unwilling to coast on a wave of nostalgia. From there, it hits very few false notes, as it’s funny, suspenseful, exciting, and completely entertaining from start to finish. Taking its cue mostly from old B-movie creature features, it crackles with energy and wit as it effortlessly entangles a large cast of characters.
Most importantly, it never loses sight of these characters. They carry the day here; though they’re barely introduced before the action begins (the alien crashes literally about three minutes into the movie), I felt drawn in by their camaraderie and their sense of allegiance to one another. The chemistry between the cast is pitch-perfect in bringing this group to life; they’re a dynamic group that inundates you with rapid-fire dialogue that’s full of jargon and slang. There was a slight controversy concerning the latter, as American execs were finicky about American audiences finding it difficult to pick up, which is nonsense. As a native South Carolinian, I don’t think I could be more further removed from the hoods of London, yet I had no trouble following the conversations. If anything, all the slang enhances the experience by immersing you in their culture; despite the fact that they’re essentially hoodlums, the film’s sympathies definitely lie with them, and their gift of gab is one of their more endearing qualities.
I was surprised to discover just how inexperienced most of this cast is, particularly Boyega, who is making his screen debut. You’d never know it because he seems so self assured; he’s tasked with a role that requires him to be both confident, stern, and a little bit vulnerable. Of all the characters, he most straddles the line between being a common thug and a misunderstood, troubled youth. His right hand man is the ever loquacious “Pest” (Alex Esmail), who provides constant comic relief; other colorful characters abound, such as a pair of nine year old kids who simply want to be hood rats like the boys they idolize. On the opposite end of the spectrum is a drug lord named High-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) who also has a bone to pick with the gang. The most recognizable face is Nick Frost, who shows up as a pot-head drug dealer; his limited role reveals him to be as funny as ever, but you sometimes forget he’s even in the movie. Amazingly, you never feel like you miss him, which speaks volumes about how interesting the main characters are; no one here is mere background noise, even the goofy white boy whose love for nature documentaries ends up playing a crucial role.
Director Cornish is as confident as his cast; this is quite an auspicious debut, as he’s able to stylishly mix up a lot of different modes with ease. I think the presence of Frost and producer Edgar Wright will draw obvious comparisons to Shaun of the Dead, but I would hesitate to call this a comedic affair--it’s certainly funny at times and altogether silly, but it also works as a straight-laced action and horror film. In fact, I didn't expect horror to be its primary mode, as it’s full of harrowing chase sequences (which feature some great camera and stunt work), numerous jump scares, and even an abundance of gore gags. The creature designs are somewhat reminiscent of the Krites due to their razor maw and furry appearance; however, they also actually have appendages, which make them appear like everything from gorillas to wolves (one of the film’s best recurring jokes is the characters’ ever-shifting description of them).
However, this is a monster movie where the monsters are thankfully incidental, as I found myself caring more about the characters evading them more than anything. There’s a true arc for them to be found, and it’s wound with some subtle thematic threads about understanding, class cultures, and disenfranchisement. As you might expect, the nurse they rob is a catalyst for all of this, as she discovers that these aren’t really a group of no good, lowly thugs, but rather, misunderstood children of neglect who have been driven to this lifestyle. The film is too smart to get heavy-handed here, but one can read it as a sort of parable about someone becoming a hero when nothing’s ever been expected of them.
Its apparent Guy Fawkes Day setting isn’t coincidental, nor is the characters’ disinterest in a holiday that ostensibly celebrates the foiling of an anarchist plot; in other words, it’s a reaffirmation of a status quo that’s only served to disenfranchise these characters and divide them among social and racial lines. Moses and his gang are looked upon as nefarious not unlike Fawkes himself; however, just as the old guy has become re-appropriated as a sort of folk hero, so too is Moses (whose name also carries Biblical implications--in this case, it would seem “The Promised Land” would simply be a safe place free of not only aliens, but also crime lords and police).
That’s not a bad bit of subtext for a silly alien movie, and Attack the Block certainly works on its most basic level. However, its desire and commitment to be more than that is what makes it excel. If my viewing was any indication (I was literally one of three people in the theater today), it’s on the fast track to being a cult classic, but it’d be nice if people would get out there and support it now. Check your local theaters and give it a shot if you can. In terms of pure, infectious enjoyment, Attack the Block is one of the best films I’ve seen this year--trust, bruv. Buy it!
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