You’ve seen movies like Attack the Block before– movies where an enemy-of-all emerges and threatens to destroy, devour, or dominate all life until being defeated by a thoroughly ordinary hero or group of heroes– yet Joe Cornish’ directorial debut stands out as one of the year’s most thoroughly original and memorable releases regardless. Largely, this comes down to elements of origination and background; while the Shauns of the world are well-meaning (if flawed), the teens at the heart of Attack the Block initially have no problem with simply mugging you and fleeing into the night. It’s amazing how refreshing a change in perspective can be.
Not that Cornish’ quintet of young thugs are necessarily heavies or anything of the sort; they’re just not the harmless types hailing from backgrounds of tragic middle-ground normalcy we expect to combat the picture’s extraordinary nemesis. If that sounds like window dressing, think twice; there’s something undeniably invigorating about a film untethered by an overwhelming need to establish its protagonists as sympathetic. In effect, that gives Cornish and his cast of unknown young actors plenty of room to organically develop the gang and transform them from hoodlums into heroes, and the resulting journey satisfies in grand fashion.
Unfolding in London’s East End, Attack the Block boldly shows its colors in the first ten minutes by having its leads– gang leader Moses (John Boyega) and his cohorts Pest (Alex Esmail), Biggz (Simon Howard), Dennis (Franz Drameh), and Jerome (Leeon Jones)– rob Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a nurse and recent addition to the titular block. The scuffle is interrupted when a fiery object crash-lands nearby and reveals itself to be a diminutive, ill-tempered alien beast– which Moses and his crew quickly, enthusiastically chase down and kill. Of course, the creature has friends that are bigger and more aggressive, and the teens’ excitement quickly turns to terror as they defend their home against the interloping monsters.
In that premise alone, there’s a lot going on that allows Attack the Block to stand out from its genre cousins. For one thing, the kids are proactive; they set out to deal with the threat themselves without really needing much convincing (though once they understand what they’re up against they realize that they’re rather outmatched and hightail it for safety). Most of all, though, Attack the Block‘s set-up has guts. Cornish introduces sociological matters into Attack the Block immediately upon having Moses and his boys stick up Sam at knife-point, and while he spends the rest of the film examining and quietly picking those issues apart it takes some chutzpah to kick off a picture on such a note– not to mention some significant narrative skill and acting talent for both the director and his cast to turn around our first impression of these teens.
Without a doubt, Attack the Block‘s greatest asset lies in the relationship between Cornish and his leads. Cornish has a keen eye and an awesome visual sensibility; the kids have high energy and charisma to spare. The synthesis of the two parties’ respective talents results in exciting, high-concept filmmaking wrapped up in a tight genre package, disguising social critiques with a generous coating of action, slick monster design, excellent acting, and the occasional dollop of grue. Ultimately, that’s what makes Attack the Block so great; it’s the kind of movie that reminds us why we watch movies in the first place, something that can satisfy audiences purely as vigorous, totally fresh, and ineffably cool entertainment while also maintaining a tongue-in-cheek narrative about racial and socioeconomic tensions on that very same exterior surface.
It’s hard not to admire how skillfully both Cornish and the teens manage that dichotomy. There’s clearly more at work here than katanas and furry black gorilla-type aberrations with bio-luminescent teeth; there’s an overarching idea that carries throughout the entire picture about the violence kids growing up in areas like this particular East End block risk facing on a regular basis. Cornish never lets Moses, Pest, Dennis, Jerome, and Biggz off the hook for their initial transgression, but he also has something to say about their circumstances and the greater social system that’s intrinsically, criminally prejudiced against them. Of course, through the efforts of the director and the cast, Attack the Block keeps its tongue firmly in cheek regarding these issues– for the most part– but there’s no denying the sociological debate at play here.
Cornish deserves a lot of praise for his work behind the camera and at the typewriter, but truthfully he’s only half the reason why Attack the Block works as a total film. The other half is comprised of Boyega, Drameh, Jones, Esmail, and Howard, the real stars of the picture and one of the most gifted groupings of young actors I can recall from any movie within the last decade and change, possessing infectious charm and verve in spades. Put simply, if you see Attack the Block for only one thing, see it for them. They vibe together perfectly and in doing so create a natural bond of chemistry that very easily suggests their friendship, but more importantly they each manage to become sympathetic over the course of the film’s running time– no small feat, that. By the end of the first act, you’ll be the fence about them but you’ll be on their side nonetheless; by the third act, you’ll relinquish any misgivings you have toward them and find yourself actively rooting for them and cheering them on while emulating their slang.
It’s a good job these teens are so adept at making you care about them, because Cornish has no qualms about outright shoving them into harm’s way at any opportunity possible. Attack the Block doesn’t play nice; people die, not just red shirt types introduced solely as fodder for the aliens, but characters we actually come to know. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a shock; the extraterrestrials menacing our characters are far too ferociously bestial to leave all of the film’s characters unscathed. Black as pitch with sets of fangs that glow blue, they represent an elegantly stripped-down approach to creature design and attain memorability through the way they function in the film rather than through indulgent aesthetics; in light of how overwrought most of modern cinema’s monsters are, that minimalist sensibility is totally welcome.
There’s so much more that I can say about Attack the Block; I think it’s clear at this point that I’m a huge fan, and I’m only disappointed that it took me this long to finally watch it. Maybe the greatest praise I can accord the film is that it lives up to the buzz generated by the Internet hype machine when so many other pictures end up falling victim to it (though I admit that I took pains to avoid absorbing too much information about the film; take that as you will). A work that’s capable of standing up to a system that can foster astronomical expectations for any movie is one worth checking out indeed, and for that alone Attack the Block deserves to be seen.