Aliens invading a London council estate? No, it’s not Doctor Who: it’s the directorial debut of Joe Cornish.
Hoodies vs. ETs would be a rather crass way of summing up Joe Cornish’s feature debut, but Attack the Block is a film that defies being pigeonholed as easily as that. It’s a curious hybrid of socio-realist drama and science-fiction horror, almost defiantly low-budget, and it has an air of authenticity that quickly disperses any doubts that the filmmakers didn’t treat the story and its setting with complete seriousness. Just like Dog Soldiers, another British low-budget genre hybrid, Attack the Block has been slotted in to an early May release date as counter-programming to Hollywood’s family-friendly blockbusters, and it fully deserves to find an audience – though one suspects it will find a bigger and more loyal one in people’s homes.
It’s Bonfire Night, and in a south London council estate dominated by 1960s tower blocks a gang of youths led by Moses (John Boyega) tries to mug Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a nurse on her way home from work. The crime is interrupted by a strange object falling from the sky and crashing on to a car nearby. Said object turns out to be a rather vicious intergalactic beastie, which is hunted down and killed by Moses after it attacks him. Unfortunately for him it was only the first of many on their way to Earth, and they all seem intent on tracking down their missing comrade. The gang take refuge in the block, forming an uneasy alliance with Sam and drug dealer Ron (Nick Frost), as they try to outrun their predators and stay alive.
Funnily enough, it’s the more down-to-earth, social drama bits where the film works best. Cornish (of Adam and Joe fame) has stated he was inspired to write the story after he himself was mugged, and it is evident right from the word go that this isn’t a sanitised portrayal of life on a rundown council estate. That’s not to say it’s an unrelentingly bleak experience – far from it – but rather it feels believable. These are buildings and streets that many of us have walked around at some point, and would probably prefer not to given the choice. Sam’s mugging is a tense, gripping sequence that perfectly sets the mood for the violence that follows. Moses and his mates have reached the end of childhood and are on the cusp of going down the darker road of a life centred around drugs and crime; it is only after the intervention of the aliens that an opportunity to choose a different path is presented.
It is this small ray of hope that lightens the gloomier recesses of the story and its setting. Cornish’s attempt to present the inhabitants of the block in a, if not positive, then certainly a more human light pays off handsomely. We end up caring about these kids because in the end we see that, when push comes to shove, they are just the same as us or anyone else. The authenticity extends to the cast too, most of whom were unknowns with little or no acting experience before being cast. John Boyega in particular is excellent as the strong, monosyllabic Moses. Older hands like Whittaker and Frost lend sterling support; there isn’t a great deal of humour going, but Frost gets the best moments.
The sci-fi elements have a strong Spielbergian flavour to them. Bunch of kids taking on an alien threat which the adult world refuses to acknowledge? It’s not far away from being a teenage horror adaptation of E.T. The score is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s late 70s/early 80s efforts. As for the aliens, they might look like big black balls of fur recently escaped from the Doctor Who set, but they are fantastically vicious. And therein lies its very British appeal: instead of Hollywood special effects overkill, we have low-tech aliens in a low-tech environment, with only a handful of nobodies to save the day. It isn’t quite scary enough to be a horror film or funny enough to be a comedy, but underneath the hoodie and the slang an old-fashioned heart beats at the centre of Attack the Block. Geeks and non-geeks alike are advised to check it out.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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