Judge Paul Pritchard once defended his block with nothing but a cue ball and an old sock.
"You discovered a species hitherto unknown to science, possibly extra-terrestrial in nature, and you kicked its head in."
Growing up, I was always confused as to why the British film industry failed to produce movies I wanted to see. I could get endless period dramas and the occasional gangster movie, but where were the cool movies—the horror, sci-fi, and action flicks? As I grew older, I realized the problem wasn't due to a lack of talent. Far from it. With the likes of Ridley Scott, Sam Mendes, Matthew Vaughn, and Christopher Nolan having produced celebrated pictures all the way over in Hollywood, we clearly have the visionaries. Likewise, acting talent has rarely been an issue. With British actors now playing the holy trinity of Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man, there's clearly no reluctance on their behalf to jump into action roles. Film is obviously a collaborative medium, but it would be nice to think that us Brits could occasionally knock out a few cool movies by ourselves.
A few years ago, things began to change; only slightly, but it was enough to make me hope. It become apparent when the TV series Spaced gave way to the brilliant Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Suddenly, we had horror movies like The Children and Eden Lake. Finally, were headed in the right direction. Now, thanks to Joe Cornish (from The Adam and Joe Show), we have Attack The Block, an alien invasion movie created for, set in, and financed by little ol' Britain. Yay!
Facts of the Case
While walking home from work, a young nurse (Jodie Whittaker, St. Trinian's) is mugged by a gang of youths. Just as things begin to get out of hand, something falls from the sky, distracting the gang long enough for her to escape. Moses (John Boyega), leader of the group, goes to investigate and is attacked by a small furry creature. Joined by his cohorts, Jerome (Leeon Jones), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Pest (Alex Esmail), and Biggz (Simon Howard), Moses hunts down and kills the creature. Triumphant, the gang walk the streets of London with their trophy—that is, until more creatures start appearing. But this time they're bigger, and much, much, stronger.
Realizing the gravity of the situation, the gang quickly "tool up," and set about exterminating the alien threat.
I went in to Attack The Block (Region 2) expecting a fun movie. The trailers, and even the reaction of numerous friends, all pointed to a cult classic in the making, something akin to a violent Goonies, as one friend put it. However, for everything that is right with Joe Cornish's directorial debut, Attack The Block is still a deeply troubling film.
The problem is one of redemption, or rather a lack of it. We first meet Moses and his gang when they attack Sam on her way home from work. She is pushed to the ground; has her purse, ring, and mobile phone forcibly taken from her; and is threatened with a knife. There is no sympathy or remorse shown toward their victim, and the gang is almost celebratory about their achievements. Immediately it is striking that Cornish is expecting us to accept these kids as our heroes. As the film progresses, and the mini-alien invasion plot kicks into full gear, it is striking how little these kids develop. Their ignorance continues unabated—at one point forcing their way into Sam's home and verbally abusing her for being reluctant to treat a leg wound one of them has sustained, seemingly unaware of the torment they have already put her through. The problem is highlighted further during the film's final moments, where a member of Moses' gang is heard to shout at a group of police officers, "Why are you always arresting the wrong people?" Problem is, this is not the case. We know full well these kids have been up to no good. Why in the hell are we supposed to forgive them their past crimes, especially as we learn that much of the bloodshed has been of their own doing? Crucially, as these kids were so quick to kill a creature—that they assumed to be a dog at the time of the attack, rather than an alien—there is far too little to distinguish them from the film's villain, Hi-Hatz, who is extremely callous in his actions. Also, make no mistake, these guys are not defending their block—just look at the way they treat the other residents for proof of this—they are simply turning their aggression onto something other than defenseless women. The fact that Sam, the victim of the mugging, is the one who is forced to change her view on the boys really sticks in the craw.
There are attempts at offering reasons for the behavior of the kids: parents are notable by their absence, and it could be argued they are simply assimilating themselves into their environment, which is hostile to say the least. However, heroes are supposed to be made of more, at least in the movies, and should be seen to rise above; any arguments of attempting something more realistic are thrown out of the window when you're film is full of furry aliens with glowing teeth. It almost feels like the film is holding up the worst of British society and celebrating it, or worse still, defending it. There's a troubling speech where Moses suggests the whole thing is a conspiracy by the authorities: "I think the government sent them things. First they sent drugs. Then they sent guns. Then these monsters. Black boys aren't killing each other fast enough so they thought they'd speed up the process." I'm sure that's not the intention; at least I hope it's not, but it certainly has tones of an apologetic white middle class interpretation of gang culture. It wouldn't be so hard to take were it not for the frequent news reports of gang-related deaths, not to mention the recent riots that hit London.
I'm still not done. I do not recall seeing a single black character who is not in a gang, or affiliated with gang culture. I'm not calling the film racist—white characters are generally used for comic relief, lacking even an ounce of intelligence, and so come off no better—but it's a point worth noting as the film certainly leaves itself open to the accusation by having its characters conform so readily to negative racial and class stereotypes. Had the film played against these stereotypes, instead of seemingly reinforcing them, then Attack The Block would have sidestepped this completely. The very worst part is, had the mugging not taken place at the start of the film, the problems could have been avoided. That one act, and the total refusal by all involved to actually say sorry and understand what they did wrong just leads to a huge disconnect between the film and its audience. Dealing with race and youth culture in a sci-fi film is commendable, but its handling here is awkward and just doesn't sit comfortably.
So, yes, you could say I have some major problems with Attack The Block. It's a damn shame too, as beyond the mishandled social commentary lies a wonderful midnight movie. Cornish has clearly studied at the school of Raimi, Carpenter, Spielberg, and Walter Hill (though not necessarily in that order), as each has their individual marks all over the film. One can imagine a young Cornish reveling in the video nasties of the eighties, and gang movies like "The Bronx Warrior," and very much setting out to deliver his take on the genre. The sci-fi twist adds a genuine sense of wonder to the picture with an alien design that is beyond simple, yet elegant and intimidating at the same time. The film's setting is also a boon, as the long narrow corridors of the tower blocks allow for several frantic chase sequences as Moses and Co. are pursued by the alien menace. A scene late on where visibility is compromised due to the use of fireworks ups the tension levels, and delivers a sequence reminiscent of Aliens, where the threat of sudden death hangs over it. Not wanting to give too much away, but it's commendable that Cornish chose to kill off a number of his main characters. It's all very well having incidental characters ripped apart, but when it happens to major characters, it adds to the threat level exponentially.
Along with the design of the aliens, Attack The Block contains several striking images, not least amongst them a shot revealing dozens of aliens scaling the outer walls of a tower block. It's only a brief shot, but it really cements the film's cinematic feel. A sequence where a katana-wielding Moses bursts through a room full of aliens (all done in stylish slo-mo) is both tense and exciting. It's enough to cause a geek-gasm. For a brief moment, it makes you forget this guy had mugged a defenseless woman not 70 minutes earlier. Regardless of how successful he is of getting his characters over, Cornish still delivers an impressive directorial debut. His film is one blessed with imagination, wit, and daring. Perhaps his decision to have such reprobates as his "heroes" is such a brave and unlikely step that it simply bamboozled me, and years from now I'll be celebrating it; right now I'm not convinced that is the case.
The screenplay is littered with quotable dialogue ("This is too much madness to fit into one text!") that provides much of the humor. Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz) turns up in the role of Ron, the local friendly drug dealer, and once again confirms his ability to effortlessly win over an audience. Though small, his role delivers the highest minutes-to-jokes ratio in the picture. Newcomer John Boyega, who plays gang leader Moses, is quite remarkable. Much of the success of the film is carried on his shoulders, and yet his young age and considerable lack of experience never shows. Moses is the most developed character, and the one who comes closest to acknowledging his faults, and Boyega brings some much needed humanity to the role. The rest of the cast also impress, and inhabit their roles fully—whether you like them or not.
The DVD contains the "Behind The Block" making-of featurette, which allows the young cast to discuss the film and how they came to be involved. "Creature Feature" goes into detail on the design and implementation of the aliens in the movie. This was one of my favorite features, as I'll admit I was intrigued as to how Cornish had achieved such an arresting-looking creature. "Meet The Gang" has the cast discussing their characters, while "It's A Rap" sees them free-styling. Finally, Joe Cornish discusses the rewrites involved in the "Unfilmed Action" featurette. Also included for your viewing pleasure are not one, not two, but three audio commentaries. The first, a.k.a. the "Junior Commentary," features director Joe Cornish and the young members of the cast, John Boyega, Alex Esmail, Franz Drameh, Simon Howard, and Leeon Jones. Next up is the "Senior Commentary," where Cornish is joined by adult cast members Jodie Whittaker, Luke Treadaway, and Nick Frost. Finally, in the "Executive Producer Commentary," Cornish is joined by Edgar Wright. Each track has its own merits, but my pick would be the "Executive Producer" track, as Wright's involvement means a more involved discussion about film in general, with the two filmmakers discussing their influences and experience of making motion pictures. Bonus points too for Cornish for informing us that: "I've had movie blue balls…and this is a big celluloid ejaculation." It's also interesting to hear both Wright and Cornish express the same frustrations I had growing up with British films.
The DVD transfer is exemplary, with a sharp image throughout. Colors are vibrant, even during darker scenes, while black levels are rock solid. The 5.1 soundtrack matches the video quality stride for stride. A well-balanced mix features clear dialogue, with individual sound effects easily discernable.
Attack The Block is an exciting, edgy, and exhilarating experience, and I love it, but for one (completely unnecessary) decision. The failure to empathize with the protagonists massively undermines the great work everyone has put into the film, and means what should have been an unreserved recommendation is marked down.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Optimum Releasing
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