Review: Attack the Block (2011)

Much has been made of the underlying class/race issues in Joe Cornish’s action/comedy/satire/what-have-you Attack the Block (2011) and I think that to ignore those elements of the film in the final analysis would be to miss something important. However, my initial desire to see this film stems from my love of executive producer Edgar Wright’s wonderful pair of genre-steeped comedies, Hot Fuzz (2007) and Shaun of the Dead (2004), as well as his television series, Spaced (1999-2001). Wright’s work reveals an intimate and loving knowledge of genre works as well as being well-shot, engaging pieces of cinema in their own right. Attack the Block, directed by frequent Wright collaborator, Joe Cornish, is certainly both steeped in genre and astonishingly well made given its reported $13 million budget. The genre touchstones here are B-movie alien invasions as filtered through the grittiness of early John Carpenter. The humour here a little less on-the-nose than in Wright’s films, and while Attack the Block isn’t any more violent than Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz in objective terms, there’s something a bit less jokey here, even if the aliens in Cornish’s films look like they come from an FX warehouse a few rungs down on the budget ladder. Attack the Block opens with a group of South London “hoodies” mugging a young woman on her way home. Their robbery is interrupted by something falling from the sky into a nearby car, and when that something turns out to be nasty and ugly, the boys’ ostensible leader, Moses (John Boyega), proceeds to kill it. That is our introduction to the “heroes” of this film: a mugging, and the killing of an unknown creature. From here they make their way back to their apartment block, dragging the carcass of what they begin to suspect might be an alien. The introduction economically and effectively introduces us to the gang, assuming one has no problem parsing the various accents and English street slang. Suspecting that their kill might be valuable, the boys stash it in the “weed room” of a local dealer (Nick Frost, offering a cameo and getting a few laughs even without his usual partner in crime, Simon Pegg) in the penthouse of their “block”; but, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), the young woman they mugged, has called the “feds” and soon Moses is being taken into police custody when more mysterious, black furred aliens descend on the “block.”

Sam ends up in the company of the boys after the aliens kill the police; the boys, who decide that the “feds” won’t offer them any help, believe that it is their duty to protect their “block” from their glowing jawed-assailants. The striking distrust of authority from the boys in the "block" seems all the more grounded in the reality of London's class politics after the violent anti-police rioting that we've witnessed in the past month. The film plays out as they plan their attack and negotiate both a deranged local kingpin and a pile of aliens attempting to kill them. There’s an edge to the film, a daring in the way the film transcends the usual notions of heroism/anti-heroism. One cannot shake the fact that these are merely kids, and while Sam provides a safe, middle-class anchor for audiences unaccustomed to identifying with anti-social protagonists, she has as much to learn about her companions as they do. Attack the Block avoids any kind of trite “lesson.” If there’s anything to be said about class and race in Britain, it’s in the basic humanity of each of the characters. “Hoodies” aren’t merely a menace, but nor can we ignore their obnoxious and violent behaviour. Moses, a taciturn and stoic figure, displays leadership beyond his years (at one point Sam expresses shock when he admits that he is only 15 years old). Furthermore, rather than tacked on as social commentary, the very conflicts of the film are born out of the social and racial tensions inherent in the setting. Attack the Block would be a very different film if it wasn’t set in South London.

Cornish’s sure-handed direction plays out best in the establishing of setting and character, and in the negotiation of the “block.” Attack the Block is a successful low budget film, the kind that wouldn’t benefit from a bigger budget. It’s clear that much of the budget was spent on cameras and lighting rather than special effects or the alien costumes, which are laughable (one character when confronted with an alien carcass asks where they got the “puppet”). But it all plays to Attack the Block’s strength, as it is more important that we believe in the film’s South London setting and the authenticity of the characters than in the reality of aliens descending on a particular “block” in the UK.

Attack the Block (2011)

Written and directed by Joe Cornish; starring John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, and Nick Frost.

8 out of 10