[This was originally posted back in March. It is reposted here to coincide with the film’s international release.]
Bloodthirsty aliens land in a South London council block for a smackdown with the locals, which proves to be a monumentally bad idea. Director Joe Cornish takes this perfect premise and turns in what will certainly be one of the best movies of the year.
Despite Edgar Wright producing, this is a very different beast to Shaun of the Dead. You can pick out bits and pieces of the material which influenced Cornish, but Block never pays direct homage or settles into easy referencing. Though often very funny, it’s no comedy either, but a proper alien invasion thriller with a voice all of its own and startlingly confident for a first-time director. The mid-range budget works in the movie’s favour, lending a roughness to the visuals that suits the surroundings and keeps the alien design simple, yet more effectively threatening than any of JJ Abrams overdesigned gargoyles.
Fears about the accents being difficult to understand can be quashed right now. While hardly the Queen’s English (I’d love to hear Her Maj say “Tango neutralised” though), the dialogue is fast-spoken but clear and the slang, though dense, consists of words repeated frequently enough that its meaning is quickly devined through context. It’s The Wire meets Gremlins, via Attack On Precinct 13.
One of the many excellent decisions Cornish makes is not diluting the more difficult aspects of presenting gang life. It would have been easy for Moses, the gang leader and protagonist, to start the film with ambitions of a better life or some regret at past transgressions as a way of manipulating the audience’s sympathies early on. Instead, he’s terrifying and unhinged enough to give nightmares to the worst of Hollywood’s villains. The first time we meet him, he and his gang mug a young woman at knife point, only holding back from punishing her first sign of resistance when distracted by what seems to be a meteor landing on a nearby car. When a creature inside attacks him, his first instinct is to kill it in the most violent way possible and parade the battered corpse around town. As more meteors crash nearby, the gang’s first instinct is to arm up for an entertaining night murdering the planet’s new visitors. So much for Gene Roddenberry’s prime directive.
That lack of censorship makes Moses a stronger and more admirable character when he eventually finds a semblance of redemption. The road he takes to that point is not a smooth one: when witnessing the carnage unleashed by his actions and forced to face up to the consequences, be it having to cooperate with the woman he mugged earlied or watching his friends get ripped apart, he makes every excuse for himself and his actions until given no other choice. Due to the nature of the role, it seems unlikely that John Boyega will achieve the exposure he deserves, since his is a performance as sharp as the blade his character wields. Moses is a frequently horrifying creation and Boyega plays that side of him to the hilt, but keeps his anger grounded as that of a young man surviving the world he was born into. A late revelation plays this point to shocking emotional impact.
The most likely cast member to break through will be Jodie Whittaker, and not just because she’s so fetching. She has already been celebrated for her performance in Venus alongside Peter O’Toole, but it’s this sort of genre role which should cement her as one of the most exciting young English actors around. (Keep an eye open too for Felicity Jones, who is not in this film but should get her own moment of recognition soon). Whittaker plays trainee nurse Sam here, who is forced under exceptional circumstances to ally herself with the gang who violently robbed her earlier. While the character’s arc is less pronounced than that of Moses, she puts a steely bravery beneath the character’s inherent good-heartedness that hints at her own struggles through circumstances challenging in different ways to those of Moses and his boys. A lesser filmmaker than Cornish may have given in to temptation and turned her into some sort of a badass, but while she does successfully dispatch one alien, it’s her determination that gives her strength, not ridiculous physical prowess. It is a lesson in how to write an admirable female character without sinking into the idealised warrior princess cliché.
Most of the comedy comes from the supporting cast, most of whom appear mentally and physically younger than Moses and look to him for leadership. Their reactions to what is happening are amusing, not in a broad comedy relief way, but rather in how they can only rationalise their situation in the context of everyday mundanity. One wishes he’d stayed at home playing FIFA [a football video game] rather than gone out hunting aliens that night; another gets furious at his sister because she won’t take his claims seriously when he calls her for help with limited phone credit; a third sticks out most of the film in the bin he’s used many times before to evade the police. They’re barely less feral than Moses in their lust for blood, but not so emotionally hardened, allowing their observations to be funny without breaking character.
Less successful are the two characters who do seem to exist only for comedy relief, Nick Frost’s lazy drug dealer – whose scenes are mercifully limited, since his every action is contrived and shatters the film’s reality – and a posh boy trying to prove his street cred, who is intermittently funny but too much of a cliché to be believable. The two young boys trying to prove their worth don’t add much either, but do pull off an alien takedown that is cheer-worthy. But it’s Frost’s presence in a cast of mostly unknowns that really irritates, never shaking the suspicion that he was the big name needed to secure funding even if there wasn’t really room for him.
Fortunately, those characters are more or less the only missteps. The aliens in particular are ferociously effective, with a design sufficiently straightforward and brutal to suit the gangland aesthetic, yet also ridiculous enough to still be a lot of fun. Something I appreciated was how they are not intelligent beings so much as animals operating purely on instinct: there is no reasoning or communicating with them any more than there would be with a hungry wolf. Parallels between them and the gang are clear – even their design, pitch black with neon teeth just as the dark souls of the block’s youth are embellished with gangster jewelry, seems to propagate certain similarities – but with any links left for the audience to draw, rather than being patronisingly directed.
The action is electrifyingly shot, energised by Basement Jaxx’s buzzing score. Cornish’s camera moves fast but without compromising geography or using incessant shaking to artificially suggest excitement. The sole exception is Moses’ fight with the initial alien, where rapidfire editing covers for how absurd the character’s wrangling with a puppet would otherwise look if shown normally. It’s a necessary compromise to cover the relatively low budget, but I’d rather have that messy five-second sequence than reams of CGI ruining the rest of the movie. Everywhere else, the practical effects give a tangibility to the creatures that no amount of rendering can match. As the characters blindly navigate a smoke-filled corridor, it’s that physical presence which makes the lurking threat so dangerous and allows the film to offer the rare treat of genuine suspense.
Attack The Block is the best movie John Carpenter never made and better than most of the ones he did, a gripping example of how powerful genre filmmaking on a tight budget can be and a giddy delight from beginning to end. Between Joe Cornish and Submarine‘s Richard Ayoade, an otherwise cinematically flat 2011 is proving a great year for emerging English directors. No matter the accents or language, all you need to understand is that, released on the verge of the summer’s big blockbusters, Attack The Block makes its move for the big boys’ turf and owns it completely.
Alex Katz: Attack the Block is the movie of the summer. Forget Transformers, forget the Marvel line up, even forget Super 8. The action is fantastic and original, the comedy is fantastic, and the creatures come straight from the good old fashioned school of Practical Effects Lord Say Hallelujah. If I say much more, I’ll really leap head over heels into hyperbole. Suffice to say, Joe Cornish has made one of the most enjoyable, awesome movies you’re apt to see this year. Do not miss it. I will find you and beat you with sticks if you don’t see Attack the Block as soon as you can. 90 – Supreme.Maxwell Roahrig: We’re in the middle of one of the worst movie summers in recent memory. Sure, Captain America and Super 8 were really solid flicks, but it’s Attack the Block that everyone should be keeping their eye on. Joe Cornish has crafted the greatest homage to 80s monster flicks like Tremors and Critters. But it’s so much more than a homage movie. Just like Edgar Wright did with his Blood and Ice Cream trilogy, Joe Cornish has successfully crafted a movie that exists as its own thing. That’s such an important goal of any flick that plays shows its influences on the cuff. Solid first time performance by John Boyega as Moses, the gang leader, makes a really good movie great. Seriously, if you don’t see Attack the Block this weekend, I’ll let Alex beat you with sticks. 85 – Spectacular. Glenn Morris: As a directorial debut, it’s easy to applaud Joe Cornish for making a movie as entertaining as the average summer flick on significantly less of a budget, but how long should we let that ride? It doesn’t change anything about that average being unimpressive to begin with. 2011, with such blunders as Green Lantern and The Change-Up may have sparked a counter-Hollywood movement in the minds of the audience, allowing this film to be respected more than it deserves. Without a sense of pacing to elevate action, horror, and comedy, what we get is a serviceable blockbuster in the guise of a counter attack. “The block” never feels like a particularly dangerous neighborhood to begin with, and its alien invaders? Well, Brit comedian Nick Frost breaks that down pretty well in the movie. “How dangerous can they be if they got nicked by a buncha kids?” 67 – Okay.