Attack the Block (2011) ****
I love a monster movie that makes me think. Most of them are content merely to entertain, and plenty of them have a hard enough time managing that. Attack the Block is entertaining and thought-provokingó along with being funny, suspenseful, imaginative, addictively quotable, and visually impressive, all within the seemingly cramped confines of a single-setting siege story. Itís one of the best things Iíve seen yet from the 21st-century renaissance of British horror, sci-fi, and fantasy movies, and writer/director Joe Cornish is going straight onto my personal list of filmmakers to watch out for in the future.
For its first trick, Attack the Block performs an inspired bait-and-switch on the audience. A recent graduate from nursing school by the name of Sam (Jodie Whittaker) emerges from the Underground station in some downwardly mobile South London neighborhood. Itís Guy Fawkes Night, fireworks are going off all over the city, and thousands of young people are out making mischief. Sam encounters five of the latter as she comes within sight of her home in the Wyndham Tower block of the Clayton Estate council housing project. Their leader (John Boyega) demands her purse, ring, and cell phone, producing a switchblade to assure Sam that he and his gang mean business. He seems to be pondering whether thereís anything else he might extract from her when a very weird thing happens. Some heavy object falls out of the sky at great speed, and smashes the shit out of the Volvo parked at curbside not ten feet away from the scene of the mugging. Sam flees in the ensuing confusion, at which point we discover that Attack the Block is not going to be her story, but the robbersí.
That being so, itís time we give the lads their proper names. The one in charge is Moses. He looks much older than his followers, but donít be fooled; heís fifteen just like the rest of them, and his gangsta tough guy persona is as yet only a bit more than skin deep. The skinny, talkative white kid with the backpack full of bottle rockets is Pest (Alex Esmail, of Strippers vs. Zombies). Jerome (Leeon James) is the stocky one who doesnít like to wear his glasses; Dennis (Edge of Tomorrowís Franz Drameh) has the asymmetrical afro and the bad attitude; and Biggs (Simon Howard) is the one who becomes most obviously a kid when he lets his guard down. All five are naturally curious about what the hell just happened to that car, but itís Moses who sticks his head into the wreckage to find out. Doing so gets him slashed across the face by some stramge animal about the size of a middling dog, which then runs off into the adjacent park. The boys give chase, and pummel the thing to death after cornering it in a shed-like piece of climbing equipment on the playground. It certainly isnít a stray dog. Eyeless, hairless, fish-belly white, and fantastically well stocked with jagged teeth, the creature looks so unlike anything the boys have seen that thereís little argument when Pest proclaims it an alien lifeform. If thatís so, then thereís a good chance those funny, descending lights in the sky, all but unnoticeable amid the continuing barrage of Guy Fawkes Night fireworks, are more of the things.
Moses and the gang donít see those lights, thoughó or not yet, at any rate. Feeling triumphant after their battle with the creature, they march home with its carcass as a sort of trophy, animatedly discussing what to do with it all the while. And would you look at tható ďhomeĒ turns out to be Wyndham Tower, the very place where Sam was headed before they surrounded and robbed her. Attitudes among the other residents seem to vary greatly concerning Moses and his friends. Many of the adults regard them as a pack of little monsters. Fellow teens like Tia (Danielle Vitalis) and Dimples (Paige Meade) regard the boysí criminal antics as insignificant macho foolishness, and donít take them very seriously. Younger kids like the pubescent wannabe gangstas Gavin (Michael Ajao) and Reginald (Sammy Williams)ó but call them Mayhem and Probs, okay?ó actively look up to Moses and his crew. And Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter, of Scintilla and Eden Lake), Wyndham Towerís resident drug dealer, considers Moses a potential protťgť, although he apparently sees little promise in Pest and the others. Hi-Hatz ends up being the answer to the boysí quandary regarding what to do with the dead alien while they puzzle out who is likely to pay them the most for such a thing. Up on the nineteenth floor of the block is a flat belonging to Hi-Hatzís main supplier of marijuana, a shlubby, 40-ish white guy named Ron (Nick Frost, from Shaun of the Dead and The Worldís End). The room where he grows his weed in hydroponic tanks under ultraviolet light is the most secure place in all of Wyndham Tower. Nobodyíll bother the thing in there. And as the icing on the eveningís cake, Hi-Hatz picks the moment when Moses drops off the carcass in Ronís weed room to entrust him with his first consignment of merchandise. Mugging nurses and shit is okay for kids, but this is a chance for Moses to make real money.
Moses and his friends wouldnít believe this if you told them, but their Guy Fawkes Night has already begun to suck. First of all, Sam has gone to the police, and two constables are now driving her around the neighborhood in a van on the theory that she might catch sight of her assailants. Secondly, Hi-Hatz is not a conspicuously reasonable man, and he doesnít react well to disappointment; by accepting that parcel of dope from him, Moses has placed himself under dangerously high expectations. But the greatest peril, naturally, is the horde of fresh space monsters falling through the atmosphere. Granted, the boys bested that first one handily enough, and they assume itíll be the same with the others once they realize that thereís something more than spent fireworks raining down from the sky. But these new aliens arenít like the one the kids killed on the playground. Black and shaggy where the other was pallid and bald, theyíre also about four times the size and commensurately more powerful and aggressive.
The kidsí three problems come together when Sam recognizes Moses as he and his friends flee from their first encounter with the new and improved aliens. Her police chauffeurs have just loaded Moses into the back of the paddy wagon, and are about to call in backup to help corral Pest, Jerome, Dennis, and Biggs, when the creature the lads were trying to escape arrives on the scene. Two cops later, Moses and Sam are rescued by the gang (Pestís fireworks consistently make surprisingly effective weapons), but with more and more monsters converging on themó and curiously not on Sam, who has little trouble getting away on footó thereís no realistic means of getting back to Wyndham Tower except by boosting the police van. That wonít look good for the boys later. And worse, while speeding frantically the wrong way into the blockís underground parking garage, they plow the stolen vehicle headlong into Hi-Hatzís car. That almost results in the lot of them being gunned down on the spot, but once again the menace from outer space saves Moses from a more mundane sort of trouble. The first of the aliens to infiltrate the block makes short work of the pusherís sidekick, Tonks (Selom Awadzi), and keeps Hi-Hatz himself busy long enough for the kids to escape into the building proper.
By that point, untold scads of the creatures have landed, and no matter where they touch down, they all seem to head straight for Wyndham Tower. The initial skirmish in and around the building ends with Biggs cut off and forced to seek shelter in a recycling dumpster, and Pest seriously bitten in the leg. When the boys fortuitously encounter Sam yet a third time, Dennis remembers the nurseís certification card in her wallet, and they force their way into her flat to seek treatment for Pest. Sam isnít happy about that, of course, but a patient is a patient, even if heís also a juvenile delinquent. The resulting downtime gives the boys a chance to explain whatís going on at Wyndham Tower. Sam doesnít initially believe them, but the alien that smashes its way into her flat a moment later makes a pretty convincing case on their behalf. Moses acquits himself well in the ensuing melee, killing the monster with Dennisís ornamental katana, and Sam sensibly tags along to continue nursing Pest as the gang withdraws upstairs to Tiaís flat. Why hers? Ask me again after you see her security door. Itís just too bad Tia doesnít also have bars on the windows to her balcony, because the pack of monsters running loose in Wyndham Tower is nothing compared to the army of the things scaling the outside walls. The gang suffer their first loss in the attack on Tiaís, after which they decide to seek shelter in Ronís weed room. (Tia and her friends, meanwhile, run the opposite direction, down to the front door of the building.) Unfortunately, Hi-Hatz is headed to Ronís weed room, too, still out for blood. So, for that matter, are the aliens, which makes this a good time to consider seriously why they seem so determined to corner Moses specifically, out of all the humans in South London. Maybe Brewis (Luke Treadaway, from Heartless and Clash of the Titans), the university biology student who was just trying to buy pot for a campus party when all hell broke loose, can help the kids with that one if Hi-Hatz or the monsters donít kill them all on the long climb up to Ronís flat.
I know a guy who canít abide the monster rampage movies of the 1950ís because to him theyíre all fundamentally the same film. I canít argue with him, eitheró itís usually the same plot outline, generally the same settings, and always, always, always the same characters. The latter point especially I can see being a problem for someone who isnít in love with the monster rampage formula. And thatís what most sets Attack the Block apart from the scores of other, conceptually similar movies: when have you ever seen a story like this play out from the perspective of a bunch of teenaged boys from the bottom of Londonís working class, most of them black and all of them habitual petty criminals? Even if we open the field of consideration to movies set in America, I canít think of many genre films that let kids like these be the heroes, outside of the neo-blaxploitation boomlet in the direct-to-video market of the 1990ís. As weíve discussed before, perspective matters. Rework a stock story with non-stock characters, and it isnít a stock story anymore. Thatís basically the same diversity argument I made in my review of House of the Damned. However, itís more than that, too, when it comes to Attack the Block, because Joe Cornish isnít and never was a poor black kid (although he does live in South London). In fact, the genesis of Moses and his friends lies in an incident in which Cornish found himself in Samís shoes. He says he couldnít help noticing, as the adolescent muggers took his stuff, that they were all at least as afraid as he was, and that got him thinking about them as human beings instead of just criminals. Attack the Block, in other words, is a conscious exercise in empathy.
A highly effective one it is, too. The crucial point is that Cornish refuses to let us forget either that Moses and his friends are a criminal gang or that theyíre just a bunch of kids. He insists equally upon the paucity of opportunity that theyíve been given, and upon their complicity in squandering whatever breaks have come their way. Just as he did when he saw the fear in his muggersí eyes, he treats the young folks in this movie as fully formed people with lives, concerns, interests, and personalities of their own. Thus Dennis is full of anger against poverty and injustice, and tends to see everything in adversarial terms. Jerome, meanwhile, is a softie who longs to be tough. Biggs feels smothered by his anxious, hovering mom, who is forever calling his cell phone to demand updates on his whereabouts. Pest is a bright kid driven to rebellion from the opposite direction, his only parental figure an out-of-touch, oblivious grandmotheró and heís heard every bullshit line in the book from condescending adults trying to psychoanalyze him or to explain him away. And Moses is the one with the drive, the ambition, the implacable inner voice commanding that he make something of himself in spite of everything. The irony is that itís exactly that which pushes him to idolize and to seek approval from Hi-Hatz. The alien invasion uncovers a hidden store of heroism in each of the boys (albeit a very small one in Biggsís case), so Attack the Block is on some level a tale of redemption. Itís a very strange sort of redemption, though, since the movie ends with most of the surviving characters being hauled away by the police, and all indications point to them spending the remainder of their adolescence in whatever England has by way of juvenile jail these days. Evidently saving the day isnít enough to impress some people.
None of that would matter for shit, though, if Attack the Block werenít successful at its main business as a space-monster invasion flick. Fortunately, itís the best one of those Iíve seen in a while. To begin in the obvious place, the monsters themselves are extraordinary creations, sort of a cross between gorillas and hyenas, with fur so black that light simply vanishes into it, leaving no features visible except for huge mouths lined with multiple rows of glowing, blue teeth. Even the cast found the monster suits terrifying, and that was before the CGI touch-ups rendering them blacker than their own shadows. Cornish has also cleverly structured the film so that the architecture of Wyndham Tower becomes a visual shorthand for the plight of its beleaguered inhabitants, forced ever higher into the building as the creatures follow Moses. For that matter, Cornish gets plenty of mileage out of the architecture simply as an environment for action set-pieces, especially during the hectic chase through the network of elevated ramps and pedestrian overpasses that surrounds the blockís lower stories. The Hi-Hatz situation is woven deftly into the battle against the aliens, too, and pays off with grim irony at the conclusion. Yet despite that grimness and plenty more in the hour and a half leading up to it, Attack the Block never loses its dry British appreciation for the absurd. This movie left barely a ripple to mark its passing during its initial release, at least on this side of the Atlantic, but it amply deserves the cult following itís accrued since then.