Following the summer trend of 1980’s throwbacks like Super 8 and Captain America, British sci-fi/comedy Attack the Block serves up a creature-feature that echoes back to movies like Gremlins and Critters. Where Super 8 was all wide-eyed innocence, Attack the Block is darker, grittier, and much more grown-up. I can’t say this enough—I FUCKING LOVE THIS MOVIE. I’m a huge fan of Edgar Wright’s genre parodies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and Attack the Block works in a similar vein (Wright was an executive producer on the project).
The story revolves around a gang of south London street thugs lead by Moses (newcomer John Boyega in an impressively steely performance) who find themselves under siege in their “block”, a London council estate (read: project housing). Not unlike Captain America, Attack the Block works primarily because of fundamentally solid storytelling—every interaction in every scene is driven by the narrative imperative. Directed by Joe Cornish (co-writer TinTin: Nightmare of the Uncanny Valley) from his own script, Attack the Block is a simple story told well.
Moses and his gang (compromised of young actors with little to no experience) kick off the action by mugging a young woman, Sam (Jodie Whittaker, One Day’s Tilly), just before they witness an object crash into a car. When they see something scampering away from the wreck they give chase on bikes because they’re children and that’s what kids do. The contrast between the kids’ tough attitudes and their juvenile approach to problem solving creates most of the tension in the movie. That said, there isn’t an overemphasis on creating that tension. Most of it derives from the increasing stress of an alien invasion and class conflicts between Moses and his mugging victim, Sam, who becomes a reluctant ally against the alien horde.
Like the genre comedies of the 1980’s, the driving force of Attack the Block is the comedy, not the genre. When asked about the science involved in the science fiction of his movie, Cornish retorted, “There is none,” which is mostly true. The aliens are here, we don’t know why, and the kids are too busy trying to avoid being eaten to dwell overmuch on why this is happening (Moses does posit that it’s a government conspiracy to kill black kids, like drugs and guns). While the science might be a bit thin, the comedy is rich. Particularly funny is Moses’ #2, Pest (another first-timer, Alex Esmail), who gets most of the best lines in the movie. That kid really cracked me up and I’d be happy to see him in something else. Nick Frost (Paul, Hot Fuzz) has a small part as a pot dealer—he and his rich boy client Brewis (Luke Treadaway, Killing Bono) make up the bulk of the rest of the comedy.
Moses’ theory about why/how the aliens are in London may be a bit half-baked, but given the forces we see stacked against this kid, his paranoia is justified. These characters are stuck in a ridiculous set of circumstances but Cornish grounds it in a socio-economic setting we recognize. The kids can’t get anyone to believe them about the aliens, which causes misunderstandings and leads to the police and a gang leader gunning for them. Moses is a bit of cliché but in Boyega’s hands he comes across as an overburdened child who really just needs a break. Boyega deserves a lot of credit. He’s in nearly every frame but has few lines—almost all of Moses’ communication happens in his eyes and the varying degrees of his scowl. Like Super 8, characterizations for the other kids are skint, but Moses is the one who really matters and his life is revealed in a way that gives the movie a bit of moral purpose.
As for those aliens, they’re actually real. There are some CGI shots, but most of the work was done the old-fashioned way, with animatronics and puppeteers. Their design is simple but threatening and their very unspecific nature sets up a running gag of trying to describe them. I love that Cornish went for practical effects as much as he could, which makes me wonder about his feelings on TinTin’s performance capture aesthetic (when he was in Chicago Cornish was so enthusiastic and nice that I didn’t have the heart to rain on his parade by bringing up how hellishly nightmarish TinTin looks). This is a well-made movie that culls a lot of tricks from less technologically-advanced days, which gives Attack the Block a pleasingly retro look without being set in a retro period (unlike Super 8, which had to go back to 1979 to evoke a similar feel).
As a debut feature film for Cornish, as the first break for its young star Boyega, as a throwback creature-feature and as a genre/comedy, Attack the Block just works. The pace is fast and tense and the story is alternately scary and hilarious. I struggled a bit initially with everyone’s thick London accents, but I got the hang of it quickly enough. Attack the Block opens in Austin, Chicago, LA, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Toronto. It’s receiving little marketing support from distributor Screen Gems, so it will live and die on word of mouth. Please, if it’s at all possible to support this movie, DO. We bitch and moan about shit summer movies for four months straight—we can’t let a gem like Attack the Block die from indifference. I saw it for free two weeks ago. I’ll see it again this weekend, and I’ll pay. Why? Because it’s worth it.