Attack the Block Review
According to its writer/director Joe Cornish the initial idea for Attack the Block came about courtesy of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. Watching the film he envisioned an alternate alien invasion, one that didn’t take place on an isolated farmstead in Pennsylvania, but rather in the London of his youth. As he puts it, what would a Signs in Stockwell be like? This being a comedy as much as it is a science fiction movie or horror flick, Cornish doesn’t answer his own question with the utmost seriousness. With an eye more inclined towards the absurd than it is social realism, he hit upon the high concept of ‘hoodies vs. aliens’, the tabloid terrors becoming the first line of defence in protecting their council block from extra terrestrial attack, armed only with an ornamental samurai sword, a pizza delivery scooter and other hoodie paraphernalia.
Given that Joe Cornish is one half of the duo responsible for The Adam and Joe Show in the late-nineties and its collection of film and TV parodies (Titanic with toys becoming Toytanic; Blind Date re-imagined with Star Wars figures), there is the potential misgiving that Attack the Block and its marketing-friendly concept will be nothing more than a gimmick, and a slim one at that. After all, a feature-length running time is significantly greater than the mere minutes that sufficed for a You’ve Been Framed! re-enactment hosted by a Chewbacca figurine. Yet those years of condensing the likes of Kids and The English Patient into sketch form appear to have taught Cornish an economical approach to filmmaking that serves him particularly well. He opts for a running time of less than 90 minutes and simply throws the viewer straight into the action, initiating a pace that he happily maintains throughout. Despite previous directorial assignments having been no longer than a television pilot or a DVD featurette, Cornish’s command of the material is surprisingly assured and confident. Furthermore, the simplicity of Attack the Block’s central concept ultimately works tremendously in its favour, proving to be its saving grace as opposed to its downfall.
Indeed, the idea of hoodies versus aliens is one that allows an audience to gain immediate bearings. The ‘hoodie’ has become a potent image and one that’s instantly recognisable, whilst alien invasion movies have been a continual part of the cinematic landscape for some time; neither requires a backstory or exposition. And so it is that Cornish unleashes the both for the pre-credits: five hoodies mugging a young woman only to interrupted by a meteor and a creature resembling a smaller, furrier version of H.R. Giger’s Alien creation. Yet instantly recognisable need not by synonymous with predictable as the immediate outcome of this set-up reveals. Whereas we may expect the visitor to dispatch with the criminals as we’ve seen many times before (think of Bill Paxton’s punk who has the misfortune to encounter Arnold Schwarzenegger early on in The Terminator), here the hoodies turn out to be just as murderous. Within minutes the new arrival to Earth is introduced to a bit of thuggery and finds itself as a trophy with a bit of eBay potential. Except, in a more predictable turn of events, it isn’t the only alien to land in London that night…
Cornish clearly knows his movies - indeed, the evidence goes right back to those miniature toy versions on The Adam and Joe Show - and thanks to Attack the Block I can easily imagine him devouring Alex Cox’s Moviedrome seasons back in the late eighties and early nineties. The lean genre fun of the kind of titles that used to screen - the early works of John Carpenter, say, or Walter Hill or Larry Cohen, not to mention one-offs such as Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet - is prevalent in his feature debut. Attack the Block shares with those titles a certain knowingness, a certain inventiveness when it comes to handling the relatively budgets, and a complete dismissal of anything unnecessary other than the occasional quirky edge. Most notable, however, is the focus on the anti-hero. In the hoodie Cornish has found the UK’s 21st century equivalent of those morally ambiguous characters who used to populate so many of those Moviedrome titles: the street gang of Hill’s The Warriors or the car thief of the same director’s The Driver; Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York, both of which expect the audience root for known murderers; Cohen’s Q - The Winged Serpent and Michael Moriarty’s small time criminal whose key line was “I stink and I wanna cry”.
In line with the anti-heroes who have come before Cornish adopts an approach whereby he doesn’t smooth over their actions - the opening mugging is most definitely a mugging - but also refuses to judge. There’s no social commentary or hand wringing on his part, indeed Attack the Block is too cartoon-ish to encompass any such ideas. With that said he is also, essentially, dealing with a bunch of kids (the ages are assumed to be around that of fifteen) and so, outside of the mugging, they do act mostly like kids, albeit weed-smoking, weapon-carrying ones who want to kill more aliens having dispatched the first. Given their youth Cornish therefore prevents them from heading into territory that is too dark or bleak (whilst acknowledging the drug dealing around them and less than perfect family environments) and instead, slowly, asks that we identify with and perhaps even understand them. Interestingly, they become the inverse of the aliens they are fighting whilst following parallel paths. Just as Attack the Block does the requisite science fiction reveal of the creatures - upping how much we see with each set piece much as it ups the gore - so too he strips away the hoodie accoutrements of his main characters so they gradually lose the clothing that makes them conform to stereotype: the face coverings, the hats, the jackets, the hoods. The more we see of the aliens, the more we also see of the kids - and whilst the former become more alien the more we see (the fur so black in pitch that it loses all texture, the glow in the dark jaws that loses its light source as its owner loses its life), the latter ultimately become more human.
There’s a danger that I’ve just made Attack the Block sound far more earnest than it actually is. Going back to the films of Carpenter and Hill, et al, it’s worth remembering that all of this happens within a fast-paced genre flick and so is never dwelt on to any great effect. We’re too distracted by the scares and the humour to in anyway misinterpret this as a ‘message’ movie. (Indeed, Cornish’s script is peppered with little throwaway lines which negate any such motivation.) Yet the presence of such subtexts running through the film do demonstrate just how much thought Cornish has put into things and just how much he’s paid attention to those earlier films. Ultimately this is a slick piece of genre filmmaking supplying the requisite thrills, but with enough interesting elements on the fringes to make it that little bit more rewarding. You could argue that the genre aspect may make it throwaway, but if so then it’s not quite as throwaway as it could have been.
For all the references made to US productions, Attack the Block is very much a British film. There’s the council block setting, of course, and our central hoodies, but then there’s also the very distinctive lingo in use and the humour. The former is peppered with all the “bruvs”, “beliefs” and “innits” you would expect, at once channelling a very specific form of British identity and sending it up: as one of the kids points out, there are “too many things [aliens] out there to get me, get me?”. Going back to The Adam and Joe Show, Cornish’s style of comedy has always been about poking fun at the zeitgeist and here that’s no different. Of course, such a stance also prevents any class accusations coming into play given Cornish’s white middle class background and a film which centres predominantly around mostly black working class youths; as with the lack of heavy handed social commentary, Attack the Block is, again, simply too comic and absurd to cater such notions. Moreover, there’s also the character of Brewis to consider, who Cornish admits is a surrogate for his old skool hip-hop loving, white middle class self and who is ridiculed throughout the movie thereby doing away further with any potential accusations.
With that said the humour is more of a gentle ribbing than of the genuinely laugh out loud variety. Arguably Attack the Block is a film with a comic tone - an overall cartoon-ish take on things offset, of course, by the scares - as opposed to being a proper all-out comedy. It has some great lines and in Nick Frost’s supporting turn as friendly local dealer Ron the ability to draw on a regular number of chuckles. But you sense that it is the ‘creature feature’ element which most interested Cornish as it is here where the greater entertainment resides. As with everything else the aliens are kept simple (the above description of just fur and jaws is pretty much it; one of the characters opts for “big alien gorilla-wolf motherfuckers”) albeit with the important elements in place. For starters the jaws are an effectively terrifying tool as are the motion and speed dreamt up for these creatures. Additionally, Cornish has opted for practical effects in another throwback to the films he no doubt grew up with which both makes them more of a presence and, arguably, enhances the low-ish budget fun. Digital effects were also utilised in places (and are oftentimes invisible to the untrained eye or those who haven’t listened to the commentaries), but this basis in the tactile gives the film a distinctive flavour amongst modern day science fiction horrors.
However, despite this seemingly heavy focus on the scares and the more obviously generic elements, Cornish never loses sight of the performances. Indeed, the main pleasure of Attack the Block comes from its uniformly excellent cast. The already mentioned Frost is the only real ‘name’ attached, with a number of the younger actors having no previous experience. The ‘making of’ feature and the commentaries reveal that Cornish effectively cast those who greatly the resembled the characters when it came to the hoodies and it certainly pays off: each of them is engaging, funny, charismatic and, importantly, different enough from the rest of the group. It’s debatable as to how much comes down to the actor and how much to Cornish’s script, but there’s a lot more going to these characters to remove them from the usual tabloid generalisation. Ultimately they ring true enough whilst also maintaining the cartoon-ish edges. The adult roles are arguably more straightforward (Jodie Whittaker, a standout last year in her episode of Jimmy McGovern’s Accused alongside Andy Serkis, playing the mugging victim who gradually gets more embroiled with her attackers) or more purely comic (as with Frost, or Luke Treadaway who plays Brewis), likewise the scene stealing duo of Michael Ajao and Sammy Williams, two very young wannabes there solely for laughs and to up the cuteness factor. It’s quite the ensemble, whilst Adam and Joe fans will be pleased to hear (quite literally) that Adam Buxton also provides a cameo. Indeed, Adam and Joe fans can also be pleased that Attack the Block has turned out so well. It may seem a long way off from re-enacting The English Patient with stuffed teddies and adding a few fart jokes, but the appeal ultimately remains the same.
Attack the Block is gaining a release in the UK as either a double-play edition containing both Blu-ray and DVD or as a standalone DVD edition. The discs are due for release on September the 19th and will house identical extras (discussed below). For review purposes the Blu-ray disc was provided and so the presentation quality will be judged solely from the HD rendering. Preserving the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Attack the Block looks and sounds mostly excellent on Blu. Both image (using the MPEG4-AVC encode) and soundtrack (present in DTS-HD form) are free of damage and maintained the expected clarity and crispness throughout. There are moderate signs of digital compression artefacts during some of the smokier scenes though these are minor and barely perceptible on a reasonably sized screen; indeed, nothing to put off the potential buyer. Otherwise all is as you would expect from a new transfer of a new production - and one which, I image, Cornish had a hand in - in other words a fine presentation.
Special features amount to a weighty bunch, including three audio commentaries and an hour-long ‘making of’ featurette. This latter piece, entitled ’Behind the Block’, is essentially an on-set video diary of the production taking us from auditions and read-throughs to various key days in the production. The camera mostly follows Cornish or the kids meaning there’s plenty of goofing off amongst the footage, yet the piece is also sharply paced enough that it never becomes wearying. Moreover, the focus on certain key days also means plenty of discussion of key scenes and their various components: certain actors, certain effects work, and so on. In sum it’s an impressive look through the production, so much so that the other featurettes can’t help but feel like outtakes. The most substantial is the self-explanatory ‘Creature Feature’ (20 minutes) which offers up a more streamlined look at the creation of the aliens and the work put into bringing them to life. Elsewhere we also find the four-minute ‘Meet the Gang’ which introduces us to the main actors, all of whom have made themselves known in ‘Behind the Block’, and ‘It’s a Rap’, another self-explanatory piece in which some of the kids do a two-minute rap. The other featurette is the five-minute ‘Unfilmed Action’ wherein Joe Cornish and actor Alex Esmail discuss two scenes which never made it to production but are represented here in storyboard form. (Note that all special features are in 1080i, not 1080p as with the main feature.)
The three commentaries all involve Joe Cornish but take in different co-commentators each time. The disc describes one as the ‘junior commentary’ and sees him chat alongside his younger actors, whilst there is also a ‘senior commentary’ in which the likes of Whittaker, Treadaway and Frost join in. Also present is Edgar Wright for the final track, he being one of the executive producers on the film. For the first of the three Cornish effectively serves as moderator and interviewer. He comes to the piece with readymade questions and uses his young cast members to gauge, amongst other things, the reaction to audio commentaries in general and the youth response to his film (basically “Did I get it right?”). Of course, the lengthy ‘making of’ featurette has encompassed so much that we only get the odd bit of additional information here and there - it’s particular interesting to hear the kids’ parents’ reactions - but then it’s also a busy commentary that rarely pauses for breath and is, for the most part, an engaging listen.
Many of the same questions appear for the second piece with Cornish again asking his actors their thoughts on other commentaries and the like. Given Frost’s presence there’s a less serious tone than Cornish perhaps planned for, but again it’s an engaging listen. Ideally, perhaps, they could have edited to two commentaries together given the shared ground, although the viewer can easily do this themselves by toggling between them. In fact, you could also toggle between all three, with Wright’s presence allowing for, essentially, the ‘geek’ commentary. Here Cornish is more interviewee than interviewer and pressed as to which films were his influence and how his earlier work (from making Super 8 shorts at school in the eighties onwards) and experience influenced Attack the Block. Happily, Wright is more than willing to join in himself on such subjects and so he talks plenty about A Fistful of Fingers (his own feature debut which secured a tiny theatrical showing in the UK and has since disappeared), Spaced and so on. Given the wider discussion outside of the production (which is where the other two commentaries mainly focus their attentions) this is easily the most satisfying of the three. Indeed, if you decide to listen to only one, then the Cornish-Wright pairing is undoubtedly the way to go.