[16 September 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Certain subgenres are so overdone that we fear seeing the latest installment in their cavalcade of crap. The romanticized vampire is slowly spinning out of control while the living dead can’t seem to get a rest from their endless subpar zombie stomp. And then there is the alien invasion film. From comedies (Paul) to lesser action efforts (Skyline, Battle: Los Angeles) the notion of a war between extraterrestrials and humans has always had a certain hum to it. Sadly, many filmmakers can’t make out the melody, or simply overrun the song with F/X. Not the brilliant UK thrill ride Attack the Block, however. Combining the kind of droll British wit that warms a geek’s gentle heart with enough directorial flare to dust off the celluloid cobwebs, this is one wicked reinvention of the type - true to the tropes without falling into their frequently deadly traps.
Moses (John Boyega) and his gang of mates - Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones), Biggz (Simon Howard) - are mugging a frightened nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker) when they are interrupted by a fiery object falling from the sky. Curious, they investigate. It is not happy about the intrusion. Eventually, they confront and then kill the ‘thing’ which turns out to be an alien creature. Within moments, larger and angrier beings are chasing our frightened hoods, leading them back to their block of flats and the penthouse drug den of Hi-Hat (Jumayn Hunter) and his associate, Ron (Nick Frost). There, they think they will be safe. It’s not long, however, before the entire area is surrounded. As our accidental heroes try to find a way of getting rid of these invaders, the police converge on the area. Soon, our toughs aren’t sure what the bigger threat is - the aliens, or the angry coppers.
Attack the Block is really two films in one. The first is your standard monster on the loose narrative with a bunch of inventive South London teen hoodlums trying to outsmart some massive furry beasties with glowing green teeth. Isolated to a single set of apartments on a told in a slick, efficient manner, we get snatches of characterization (one’s a wannabe thug, the other is a closeted mama’s boy) and a brief overview of life on the skids before all cosmic Hell breaks loose. Then, writer/director Joe Cornish drags us directly to the edge of our seats as animalistic aliens lay waste to whatever stands in their way. With only his first feature film, the UK TV fixture finds ways to make the expected seem brand new. The action is intense, bloody, and often very, very funny indeed.
Then there is the stinging social commentary aimed directly at the dead end violence and pathetic posturing of today’s youth - all as a result of American hip-hop. That’s right, Attack the Block wants the infectious (both figuratively and literally) nature of US rap culture to take much of the blame for the circumstances on display here. Drug dealers using their profits as a means of manufacturing neighborhood turf wars - and phat beats? Otherwise well settled kids being sold a droning dime bag of gats, gratuity, and grandstanding? It’s all here. While the critique is subtle and often buried in thick, indecipherable accents, the message is still strong - without the bang and bling bullshit from across the pond, the problems we see littering this landscape would be almost non-existent…or at the very least, measured and moderated.
With the recent news making riots throughout the country adding to the argument, Attack the Block becomes more than a mere schlock sideshow. It argues a loss of identity, a stinging social malaise that allows police officers to profile almost anyone under a certain age while those targeted play right into their hooded tough ideals. Without another bedrock behind it - we never hear about how awful things are in Britain, just how bad-ass they are in America - the focus falls directly on the shoulders of a surreal popular culture which complains about the state of things while adding fuel to the fire that’s (supposedly) destroying them. With their street slang style and soldier of fortune philosophy, these adolescents aren’t just out of touch - they’re out of their league.
Still, Cornish keeps them from becoming unbearable by also reminding us that, at their very core, they’re still kids. They get scared. They think in simplistic terms. When faced with adversity, they don’t stand their ground (they may smoke a joint, however). Typically, they quip and then run away. Attack the Block also doesn’t play favorites. It keeps the victim pool solidly within our gang members, so the always welcome sense of dread, the notion that anyone can die at any time, remains in full effect. As for casting, Cornish keeps things from going completely outside the bounds of reality. The kids are great - clever without being overly so - and the inclusion of Frost finds a nice way to tie this title to other similarly style UK efforts.
But it’s the ready reinvention of the whole alien invasion conceit that becomes Attack the Block‘s greatest artistic contribution. While it doesn’t seem like something new (fiends converging on a building full of survivors), both the internal and external elements toward realizing said aims makes all the difference. By using an English youth identity “poisoned” by America and a more natural world notion of what these aliens are up to (or what we are told their motives might be) we get something that crosses as many genres as it hopes to embrace. Ever since Roland Emmerich blew up the planet’s iconic edifices as part of his Independence Day invasion, we have been waiting for a sci-fi film that would tone down the scope and amplify the human angle. Attack the Block does this all while getting in the digs it deems necessary. It’s a crackerjack genre critique.