A hit at Cannes and SXSW, Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block already had a proper theatrical release in the UK two months ago. A young woman named Sam (Jodie Whitaker) is mugged by five hooded teenagers led by Moses (John Boyega) in a shady neighborhood when they see a creature fall from the sky. They try to find out what the creature is with the help of their older stoner friends (including Nick Frost) but not without seeing more creatures fall from the sky, going otherwise unnoticed amidst the holiday fireworks. They’ll be running from these monsters who will be chasing and trying to eat them for the rest of the movie.
Attack the Block stumbles a bit from the starting block – the hip hop and techno blend of the soundtrack by Basement Jaxx is as boisterous as it is off-putting. But eventually, the movie lets the audience be immersed in its story, as the small posse discovers what they are fighting and the explosions and fires they have to create to kill these deadly beasts. It serves as a teenage-sized actioner within South London’s distinct ghetto architecture, as these youngsters are able to push them physically in these challenging situations. These young actors, particularly Boyega, evenly carry the action and urban cadence of the film.
Speaking of urban cadence, some reviewers have anxieties about the dialogue, and since this is a modern movie for a local audience, there would be a lot of Londoner slang in it. Having heard about the grime subculture that had its moments half a decade ago, I didn’t have problems with the language. But with or without that exposure the plot isn’t that hard to understand. I actually think the film devotes as much to the action as well as its locality, piquing outsiders’ interest in this other side of England.
This movie isn’t just human brawn versus alien brawn, as it lets Moses’ gang think about different reasons why the aliens are in their particular neighborhood. The teenagers are doing this by themselves out a distrust for the police who just want to arrest a bunch of non-white hoodlums, until these monsters are seen one violent introduction at the time. That means the kids have to to explain the aliens to the the police, the drug dealing adults, to their peers and even to Sam whom they meet again.
Despite the fighting and the legitimately scary aliens, the film slides in ways for funny moments, mostly derived from generational humor. We’re surprised to hear an old lady, comforting Sam with a bit of tea, call the muggers ‘a bunch of f*cking monsters.’ The kids are pretty funny themselves, one of them complaining that he doesn’t have enough credits on his cellphone to tell his cousin about the monsters. The movie tries to balance a lot of genre aspects and emotions and succeeds enough.
The mostly CG aliens are economically effective as the creatures blend in with the live-action characters and move through real space in a more believable way than CG work in other, more expensive-looking movies. The first, smaller one has Jaws’ mouth, hidden in the dark to keep our fears and suspense. We don’t find out what she really looks like until her death, a pink Tasmanian devil, while the others aliens that follow her look like gorilla dogs as the adolescent gangsters call them. The dog part seems more convincing, their glowing neon green teeth making them look like Baskerville hounds.
The look of these aliens is one of the more subtle references to other texts, but if the film has a flaw, it’s that it brings these cultural contexts in a heavy-handed manner. The kids speculate that the monsters were brought by the police or the government, like any problem in the slums are thought to be brought by those institutions who want those ghettos and the impoverished racial minorities living in them to be destroyed. A tattered British flag hangs in the balcony railing of one of the project buildings, representing the broken system. The protagonist’s name is Moses, and you can figure out how that fits in with the symbolism. That’s genre for you, I guess. Besides, we can’t have picked a better hero than Moses himself.
Attack The Block opened July 29th in a city near you!
Notes: 88 minutes