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Review: ‘Attack the Block’ is High-Octane Sci-Fi and Near Genre Perfection

When aliens attack the block, the block fights back.
Attack The Block
By  · Published on March 16th, 2011

Moses and his friends live in the roughest part of South London. They all reside in an apartment building in an economically arrested neighborhood. Part of the “hoodie” culture that gives older Brits nightmares, Moses’s crew gets into more than its fair share of mischief – going so far as to mug a woman in the street. But when meteors begin raining from the sky, toting vicious aliens in their wake, the hoodies in the street may no longer be the most dangerous thing on the block.

They teach us not to use the word “I” in reviews. The first person voice is said to be less professional and less in the mold of the old school of journalism. While this is not an unreasonable standard, Attack the Block spoke to me on such a deeply personal level and suppressing that experience does the film no justice. I don’t know what it is about Britain, but over the last ten years or so they have been churning out genre films that carry the keys to my soul and therefore find easy access. Not only that, but they seem to be released at just the perfect interval to find me at precisely the right moments in my life.

I was in high school, and obsessed with gangster films, when I discovered Guy Ritchie. Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels instantly became two of my favorites and opened my eyes to the impact of black comedy within the gangster genre. In college, as my film tastes were expanding and I was growing as a horror geek, I was still reticent of zombie films and hadn’t really watched the requisite canon. Then I saw Shaun of the Dead and loved it to the point that it made me go back and seek out the standards it was lampooning. Kick-Ass, partially an American production but directed by Brit Matthew Vaughn and based on a British graphic novel, found me as I was just making my way as a critic and already getting bored with superhero movies in which we are all awash. Then Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was delivered like a hand-wrapped gift for my eyes as I was rediscovering my love for classic gaming. All of these films occupy a place of high distinction on my all-time favorites list…now finding familiar company up there is Attack the Block.

On the surface, Attack the Block is a high-octane sci-fi film with as many laughs as there are kinetic action sequences, all bundled together with a blockbuster presentation. The only reason general audiences wouldn’t flock to see this movie would be the accents of its main characters being a bit difficult to decipher. Beyond that, it plays like the pitch-perfect popcorn flick with ninja-looking kids on mopeds, swords and explosions, and scary – though artfully minimalist – monsters that kill without hesitation. The score perfectly blends classic 80s movie music and catchy hip-hop beats. John Boyega (who plays Moses) is phenomenal despite having never before appeared on screen. Attack the Block brings the fireworks that summer audiences demand, and every conceivable aspect, the framing of every shot, augments its universal coolness.

But to the serious movie geeks, those of us who don’t go to our movie house churches on the Easter that is December and the Christmas that is May, there is so much more to love about Attack the Block than its slick veneer lets on. It plays to our passionate love for the genre films of the 80s with glee. If you love Carpenter, he’s in there. If you’re a massive Critters fan, you’re covered. If you dig the shit out of The Warriors, you will not be disappointed. But writer/director Joe Cornish, long time Edgar Wright collaborator, has succeeded where so many geek kitsch movies have failed.

We’ve been bombarded lately with films striving to recapture the spirit of our cinematic past and there are those that work, Death Proof and House of the Devil, and those that fail miserably, Machete still stings. But Cornish understands that making a movie like this is like building an engine. You can’t just take pieces from other cars and set them next to each other because then you have nothing, nor can one merely stick them where they seem to fit because, while that may look interesting, it doesn’t make the engine work. But when you understand the relevance, the weight of every piece, you truly understand how it works and can construct something meaningful. The catalyst that ultimately fuels the engine is subtext.

Attack the Block is the lost Amblin film. Are there flashes of E.T. (the BMX bikes) and The Goonies (the foul mouths) incorporated into the script? Sure, and those are part of what makes this film so charming. But more than superficial likenesses, Attack the Block’s subtext is really where it draws its most apt comparison to the films of Amblin. Is E.T. about a little boy who finds an alien and they have adventures together? As far as the poster and the marketing is concerned, yes. But it’s really about the pain endured by a child of divorce as he struggles to reconnect with his own universe and navigate his mounting distrust of all adults (which is why you don’t see the face of any adult outside Elliott’s mom until near the end of the film). When framed in terms of its subtext, every otherwise cutesy shot of E.T. becomes a beautiful appendage of that deeper meaning and really speaks to its effectiveness as a film.

Attack the Block is about England’s, primarily London’s, growing distrust and fear of its own youth culture. Instead of reaching out to their inner city youths, conservative Londoners are casting them off as criminals and, in some cases, monsters. Cornish wanted to take all the negative energy hurled toward the hoodies and personify it as an actual monster. By doing so, he gives these kids a chance to look beyond themselves and flirt with redemption in a way that no human being in their lives is allowing them to do. Primarily, this is Moses’s story. His bravado on the streets may seem a guise, but it is bred of his having to basically raise himself as his guardian is never around, and that same bravery is what allows him to fearlessly face down a threat no one has ever encountered – fostering his maturity in a very bizarre, but very moving way.

Moses’s bravery is microcosm of the sheer ballsy-ness of Cornish’s film. As I look back over all those films I mentioned, the British genre stuff that so speaks to me, the one thing that I can’t help but notice is that the heroes in all those films are middle class Caucasians. Frankly, it’s not the fact that Cornish chose to write the script for minority characters that I find so bold, the setting sort of demands that, but it’s how unlikeable these kids are at the beginning of the film. These kids aren’t The Goonies, whose worst offense is the occasional curse word. The kids from this block rob a nurse on her way home from work and smoke weed. We grow to like them throughout the course of the film by learning more about them, but to ask an audience to rally behind delinquents who open the film with violent crime is daring.

Also bold is the fact that kids actually die in Attack the Block. It’s not in an exploitative or shocking-for-the-sake-of-shocking sort of way but rather an extension of the realities of their world; there really are kids dying in these projects. The ironic measure to the violence against children perpetrated by extraterrestrial monsters is that, in reality, the kids who live in this world face dangers everyday just as scary as anything writers could dream up.

Many people have taken to describing Attack the Block as Super 8 Mile which is catchy if not entirely apt. The film it reminds me of more is City of God. Much like City of God, Attack the Block makes poverty as much a separate character as it is a motivation for the heroes, and the territorial loyalty these children display, not because they are in love with their station in life but because the block is the only home they’ve ever known, is oddly reminiscent. In that way, there’s an unflappable optimism shared between Attack the Block and City of God. Cornish makes a fantasy playground out of a housing project which somehow illuminates it and, for all the dangers contained therein, reminds the kids of the worlds and opportunities that exist outside their block and puts them slightly more within their grasp.

The Upside: Incredible piece of genre filmmaking, rich with subtext and badassery. Joe Cornish needs to be greenlit for 20 more films right flippin’ now! Trust!

The Downside: The accents can make it a trifle difficult to make out the sharp, witty dialogue.

On the Side: Produced by Edgar Wright and co-stars Nick Frost.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.