A remarkable film, Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block turns a popular science fiction sub-genre, the “alien invasion” story, into a complex, thoughtful statement on contemporary urban life. In part, this effect is achieved through its convincing characters: the humans are real people and, unlike so many CGI-painted science fiction creatures, the invading aliens are both mysterious and credible.
Like Pan’s Labyrinth, this is a story that deserves to be called magic realism, being a realistic tale overawed, but not undermined, by fantasy. And like Super 8, it features “every-kid” types, kids focused on having fun and trying to be cool. Much of the pleasure of both films is in comparing these every-kids’ interactions with an alien species with more conventional pubescent discoveries of self and community. Their alien encounters become a vehicle for growing up, as they precipitate crises of faith and identity. The every-kids approach the aliens as they do the adult world, learning to accept and adapt.
However, where Super 8 takes place in a world bathed in a golden ’80s glow, Attack the Block is set in a modern urban dystopia. Here, to be a normal boy or girl is to be inured to urban poverty, violence, and drug culture. Even as the heroes of Attack the Block want what other kids want, their experiences are sadly distorted by their historical moment. The aliens are and are not something new: both the setting that contains the boys and the invaders are cruel and unfeeling, and in dealing with one, the kids learn how to deal with the other.
The film’s London slum is viewed first through the eyes of an outsider, a pretty white woman named Sam (Jodie Whitaker) who lives on the titular block but doesn’t really seem to belong there. One night, she meets a group of young street thugs — including Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), and Biggz (Simon Howard) — who promptly rob her. They come across as dangerous at first, but they soon show themselves as the boys they are. For most of them, robbing is more something to do than a serious business undertaking. But for Moses (John Boyega), it’s a route to an identity. Moses has been recruited by a local, smalltime drug dealer, who can see a certain callousness in him and wants to exploit it. Because he seems like a kid who understands his reality enough to be able to transcend it, his recruitment is all the more tragic.
But in the middle of the robbery comes the invasion of a force even more alien than Sam. The kids are forced to reevaluate their loyalties, and quickly take back the block from this extra-terrestrial gang. Attack the Block could have continued this line to its logical conclusion, with a street hoods vs. aliens tagline. And this likely still would have been a great action film.
But the movie turns again, this time on an axis of social conscience. Moses begins to struggle with the importance of the street skirmishes. He questions why he should fight and die for bragging rights over a block of ugly, urban landscape. What Moses does next elevates the film’s action from the conventional attempts to survive to questions of what that survival actually means.
Many films focused on adventuring teenagers have a sense of manufactured danger about them. The excitement of films like The Goonies, E.T., and Home Alone is not whether the young heroes will come out all right but how. But this is not that kind of movie. Here, people die. Even the youngest heroes are not immune to this sensational danger, which mirrors the threats depicted in many urban stories. Neither the aliens nor the more local monsters, like the drug dealers, give a pass to children.
Like every other aspect of the film, the invading aliens of Attack the Block feel like a fresh, new addition to the genre. Suitably large and menacing, they move with incredible speed. But their most distinctive feature is their camouflage, which renders their bodies so black as to resemble a hole in the world. And of course, this is the point. They are an absence of what humans know or understand.
Their most visible feature is their gleaming white teeth. The image of an all-black creature with all-white teeth, a self-contained opposition, suggests the racial split in this London slum. The fearsome aliens embody a dichotomy, both blackest black and whitest white, and the kids fight this symbol of racial conflict, which is itself not human. The enemy is the inhumanity of the difficult race conflict that figures so strongly in the children’s day-to-day existence, and thus their standing up to it is effectively a reclaiming of their identities apart from that race conflict. In taking on these thematic complexities, Attack the Block both engages the brain and quickens the pulse.