With a high energy quotient, likeable, believable characters, witty rapport conveying a genuine sense of camaraderie, and an adventurous spirit, this modern classic from director Joe Cornish (in his directorial debut in the same year he co-wrote The Adventures of TinTin) offers entertainment in spades. It works simultaneously as a loving throwback to the long-lost genre of ’80s Spielberg-esque kids-on-a-mission films (although it’s decidedly more violent and gruesome than any of those movies), and an example of modern entertainment at its finest, with touching, pointed political commentary about poor kids being left out to dry by society to boot. Attack the Block should be what all blockbusters aspire to be, and it puts so many other films with ten or twenty times its budget to shame. And the ghostly, warbled soundtrack is pretty great too.
Attack the Block is a horror movie. It’s suspenseful and frequently chilling. There are monsters. People die, even teenagers. And the deaths are bloody. The narrative, about a group of poor inner-city teenagers lead by Moses (John Boyega) who accidentally unleash an alien-horde on their high-rise apartment block and must escape or fight back, clearly reveals an approximation of horror. But the film also has a giddy, irresistible energy, a willingness to play around with genre conventions and to create likable, fun characters that sound and act like real teenagers – a rarity in the film world. This is as much comedy and coming-of-age as horror, and the laughs are of the gallows variety. The closet approximation, as mentioned, would be all those mid-80s Spielberg-esque “kids on a mission” movies like The Goonies. But don’t take your kids to this movie, unless you’re looking to thrust them into nightmarish adulthood earlier than need be.
In all this, there’s a surprising social commentary at the heart of Attack the Block. At the end of the day, the film is about forgotten people who only have each other. Its heroes are impoverished youth, left out by society, who must resort to theft to survive. When one of their targets turns out to be an alien and comes back at them and attacks with full force, it’s not just their mistake: it’s another link in the chain which strangles them from all angles, leaving them with few options and then biting them (literally) for using what options are available to them.
Early in the film, the teenagers rob a white thirty-something female, only to discover later on that she in fact lived in the same impoverished apartment block as her. They immediately express guilt and inform her that they would not have thought to rob her had they known she was poor as well, if they had known she was “one of them”. Now, many have taken to criticizing those who champion the film, saying that the protagonists are criminal youth who deserve to be punished. They go further, saying that claiming racism on those who criticize the film’s characters is itself overly-PC and unwilling to reflects an unwillingness to acknowledge crime when its perpetrators are non-white. What’s lost in this is not only the fact that the film in fact doesn’t excuse their actions but that so many other white criminals in film are often excused for expressing a similar “moral” code that structures their action. Bonnie and Clyde, the Wild Bunch, even Robin Hood, all meet with some greater sympathy because they have some sense of respect for each other or a moral code which structures who they rob from. Mostly white audiences adore these characters despite the fact that they all steal (and in some cases kill). Of course, the films they appear in don’t adore them – they are quite critical of the characters in a way, even as they champion them – but audiences often respect the characters for their moral code, such as their unwillingness to rob the poor or break their bonds of criminal brotherhood. Even today, we have many movies designed to court some form of sympathy for bank robbers, and people never criticize the protagonists of those films. Accepting this morality but not that of Attack the Block’s quintet of heroes is not only problematic, but a reflection of societal racism which constructs white crime as more forgivable in society than crimes committed by non-whites, even when they are similar in nature.
Ultimately, the film presents the alien invasion as a chance for these kids to prove themselves and to, in fact, bring some attention to the poverty found on the “block”, the poverty brought upon them by society. At the end of the film, we’re aware that there are perhaps greater villains than the aliens from outer space, in this case outside society, who are equally alien to the block. This is driven home when the police unknowingly attempt to arrest the film’s heroes because of where they come from, and who they are, rather than wanting to listen to them even for a second. At the end of the day, it is only these kids and the others who live with them who will protect the block, their block. Everyone else left them long ago.
Of course, the film works if you leave political subtext at the door too. And works is perhaps the truest word – it just works. It’s quick and efficient, gets the job done in style, and gets out before anyone realizes it was there in the first place. It’s the type of hidden gem that will hopefully only grow in popularity. There’s a clear link to those hard-edged ’70s B-movie comic books, like Assault on Precinct 13 and The Warriors, the kinds of films which, due to their low-cost and emphasis on filmmaking skill, direction, editing, composition, and other visual and even aural features as opposed to strong script-writing, served as gateways for new talent in the film industry. All the while, they still revealed complicated visions of nightmarish inner-city worlds and poverty left unexplored by mainstream audiences uninterested in confronting that which scares them (hmm, and here I am looking for a movie for next week). Like those films, this one knows how to translate terse, energetic style into substance.
What Cornish adds is a sense of loopy, unchained, even perturbed, fun to the self-seriousness that both aided and plagued those ’70s films, a tongue-in-cheek humanism that makes these kids not only likable but empathetic. In the early scenes especially we see their wide-eyed optimism, played for laughs when it causes them to feign machismo. But we come to realize it’s all disguising an innocence and a frailty on the inside that the film is acutely aware of, a frailty they hide by making themselves seem tough and ragging on each other in a reflection of shared brotherhood. For all their genial riffing, though, there’s a chill that runs throughout the block, and through the hearts of its inhabitants, that just won’t go away.
The scariest realization, then, is that we are more afraid than the characters – they’ve been left out for so long this is merely one more factor thrown into the fray. Their humor, the humor we take joy in, serves many purposes; it helps them bond through playful banter, it helps to pass the time, but most of all it helps break up the tension of a life, to give them something to look forward to in the block when the outside world doesn’t want them. It also helps the film, being one more peg on the wheel of this fierce, ferocious filmmaking machine. Like its characters, it initially seems unimportant – it has no airs whatsoever – largely because it’s too busy sneaking up on us, involving us, and refusing to let go.