Sony // 2011 // 88 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // October 20th, 2011
"There's worse things out there to be scared of than us tonight."
If blockbusters were determined by Internet buzz, the biggest summer movie of 2011 wasn't Transformers, Captain America, or Cars 2. In fact, it probably never even made it to a theater near you. British alien invasion flick Attack the Block hit it big on the film festival circuit and at Comic-Con, sending those who saw it to their blogs and Twitter feeds to spread the word. It was the kind of viral hype that major studios spend millions trying to manufacture.
Excessive praise for a film is both a blessing and a curse. Attack the Block is an impressive movie, especially for Cornish's feature film debut, but there are plenty of things it isn't. It's not a sprawling sci-fi epic. It's also not a comedy on the level of executive producer Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Attack the Block is a simple story told well, an action-packed genre film that cares more about characters than CGI. It's funny, thrilling, scary -- and a heckuva lot of fun.
Guy Fawkes Night. South London. A gang of hooded teens accost a woman (Jodie Whittaker, One Day), stealing her phone, purse, and ring before an unidentified object crash lands nearby, allowing her to escape. The gang leader, a boy named Moses (John Boyega, Da Brick), investigates the crash and is attacked by a creature that runs off into a nearby park. The boys corner it in a shed, kill it, and take the body back to the block of apartments where they live to show it off and dream of the riches it will bring. From the windows if a local drug dealer's (Nick Frost, Spaced) flat they see more objects landing in their neighborhood. High off their first kill, Moses, Biggz (Simon Howard), Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh, Hereafter), and Jerome (Leeon Jones) grab weapons and rush out to repel the alien threat -- only to find that the second wave of creatures are bigger, stronger, and out for revenge.
While series like Doctor Who continue the Jolly Old traditions of English storytelling, a new breed of entertainment has emerged, reflecting the interests, music, and aggression of British youth culture. Attack the Block joins the BBC superhero series Misfits at the forefront of the burgeoning genre of slacker sci-fi. The 42-year-old Joe Cornish might be an unlikely ambassador for England's discontented teens, but he uses his age and experience to combine the realities of inner city life with a rich history of action-adventure and alien invasion flicks.
Attack the Block is inspired by '80s movies like E.T., Ghostbusters, and Gremlins -- all of which are referenced directly or indirectly over the course of the film. Where those movies were made for a young audience, this one is strictly for the adults who grew up with those movies. Instead of Elliott and his clean-cut pals taking NASA goons on a merry bicycle chase, Attack the Block's bike riding kids are foul-mouthed thugs who earn hero status by being slightly more sympathetic than the aliens. Our first glimpse of the film's protagonists is obscured by the masks they wear while mugging an innocent woman at knifepoint. In the pre-alien food chain of this particular block, they are the predators. As soon as the aliens land, they become the prey, and we end up rooting for Moses and his crew because they seem like the only ones with the street smarts to defeat the invaders. Say what you will about the ingenuity of '80s movie kids, but the Goonies wouldn't last two minutes in this movie.
Writer-director Joe Cornish brings more than just a clever twist to the alien invasion genre. He also brings a keen ear for the rhythm of real-life street slang. The same goes for the movie's urban setting. Aside from the creatures from beyond, Attack the Block is an honest portrayal of the struggles, friendships, and criminal activity that comes with growing up the way these kids do. The inner city gang life shown in Attack the Block is full of macho posturing and senseless violence. People attack each other not just to protect their turf, but also to take back control in their lives. Of course, the question of who "owns" a dirty housing block seems less important when the enemy is a pack of bloodthirsty aliens instead of the police, the government, or the economy.
Cornish never apologizes for his punk protagonists. He doesn't try to force moral rehabilitation on them. They are the same characters at the end as they were at the beginning. There is change, but it's mostly in the way their mugging victim, a young nurse named Sam, gets to know them over the course of the night. When the movie begins, she knows as little about her attackers as they know about her. They don't become human to each other until they are united against an inhuman enemy. If there's a problem with Sam, it's that her purpose in the film is to act as audience surrogate. Even as a counterbalance to the kids, she's a blank slate. The same is true of most of the secondary characters, which include a rival gang leader named Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) who has it out for Moses, Nick Frost's drug dealer, a stoner named Brewis (Luke Treadaway), a pair of 9-year-old toughs (Sammy Williams and Michael Ajao), and some local girls (Paige Meade, Danielle Vitalis, Gina Antwi, and Natasha Jonas) who show up for a couple of scenes then run out of the block, and out of the story.
Cornish and his team spent a long time assembling the right group of unknowns for the film, and the effort was well worth it. The young actors have an easy chemistry together that makes it feel like the director got a gang of real-life friends to run around in front of the camera. The spot-on casting is even more impressive since most of them are only 16. Everyone is excellent, but film's breakout star is John Boyega. His Moses doesn't say much and doesn't need to. Both character and actor ooze natural leadership. The strength of Boyega's performance is that he's clearly just a kid. A scene late in the movie pulls back the curtain on Moses' humble beginnings, making his arc from hooligan to hero all the more moving.
Attack the Block didn't have a Hollywood budget, but it doesn't feel like a low-budget movie either. Once the story kicks into high gear, the bulk of the film is a series of action set pieces, chase scenes, and gruesome alien attacks. In a world where CGI encourages lesser filmmakers to show every detail of their creature creations, Attack the Block deserves credit for its minimalist alien design. The film's signature jet-black beasties were shot practically, starting with performers in costume then adding a layer of computer effects to animate the glowing teeth-filled mouths and remove light and shadows from the fur. The process makes the aliens look like rotoscoped silhouettes, but with real-world weight.
Those stylized effects get the royal treatment on this 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded Blu-ray. Although Attack the Block is full of heavy shadows that swallow detail -- a byproduct of the decision to push contrast, giving the film a comic book feel -- everything that emerges from those shadows is sharp and vibrant. The transfer might not wow you, but it's a faithful reproduction of the film's organic mix of realism and fantasy. Likewise, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track won't rattle your walls but it's a well-balanced mix, with room for the original electronica score, surround effects, and dialogue that's as clear as these thick London accents are going to get.
Fans looking to go deeper into the block have plenty of HD bonus features to attack:
* Audio commentaries. Three feature-length tracks, divided into "Junior," "Senior," and "Executive Producer" commentaries. The junior track features Joe Cornish and young stars Boyega, Esmail, Drameh, Howard, and Jones. Cornish begins by asking them what they like and don't like about commentaries, followed by a laid-back hour and a half of the director quizzing the boys about a variety of topics, including their parents' reactions to the film, the film process, and the realities of growing up in South London. The senior track features Cornish with adult actors Whitakker, Treadaway, Frost (plus a couple of special guests). It's a more traditional commentary, with behind-the-scenes information and plenty of goofing around. The final commentary is a one-on-one between the director and executive producer Edgar Wright. Rather than rehash the specifics of the movie, pals Cornish and Wright chat about their early careers, the difficulties of making a first feature, and the "high-concept, low-budget films" that influenced Attack the Block.
* "Making the Block" (1:01:23). This thorough making-of documentary follows the production from casting to fliming. Following a loose chronology, the featurette is composed of cast and crew interviews and on-set shenanigans from throughout the shoot.
* "Creature Feature" (20:29). The film's distinctive alien effects go back to the performers who braved high temperatures and cramped conditions to bring the creatures to life. This featurette focuses on these actors -- especially "lead creature performer" Terry Notary -- as well as creature design and the special effects process.
* "Meet the Gang" (4:08). A character-by-character introduction to Pest, Jerome, Dennis, Biggz, and Moses.
* "Unfilmed Action" (4:59). Two scenes that were cut before shooting, presented in storyboard form with introduction and commentary from Cornish and Alex Esmail, an elaborate action sequence with Moses climbing up the outside of the block while being pursued by creatures, and an early argument between Pest and an Indian shop owner.
* "That's a Rap" (2:23): A montage of cast members showing off their considerable freestyle skills.
* The UK and US Red-Band trailers.
At 88 minutes, Attack the Block is a lean film, relying on action and rapid-fire slang slinging to keep things moving. Joe Cornish isn't interested in telling us whether the invasion is far-reaching or limited to a council estate in South London, instead focusing his attention on a group of unlikely heroes. There's a bit of social commentary among the jump scares, but the authentic setting works just as well as backdrop to a fresh take on a well-worn genre. Whether you managed to catch it in the theaters or this is your first visit to Clayton Estate, Attack the Block is a home release worthy of this impressive feature film debut.
Not guilty, bruv!
Review content copyright © 2011 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site