Attack the Block (2011)

Two recent events reminded me that I owned Attack the Block on Blu-ray and probably ought to watch it one of these days: John Boyega’s casting in the Star Wars sequel, and the firing of Edgar Wright as director of Marvel’s Ant-Man, necessitating a re-write of his and Joe Cornish’s script.

Cornish is the writer-director of Attack the Block, which also features Boyega’s break-out role (well, relatively, before Star Wars). The film is set mostly on a high-rise housing estate. On Guy Fawkes Night, said block is attacked by improbably evolved creatures from outer space, with only a gang of delinquent youths to stop them from taking over London, England, and the world.

Produced on a shoe-string budget (relative to other science-fiction/horror films, anyway), the movie accomplishes a great deal with limited funds. For one, the high-rise location is used for all that it’s worth in various fun and creative ways. The cinematography and whatever there was of set-dressing manages to somehow make the main building complex look both appropriately run-down as well as cool and exciting and even reminiscent of Hollywood flicks mostly set in a single building, like Die Hard (1988) or Alien (1979). The fitting electronic soundtrack by Steven Price and something called Basement Jaxx (here’s the main theme) reminded me vaguely and positively of John Carpenter’s work from the 1970s and 80s.

Plot-wise, the film starts in an interesting way, by portraying its teenage protagonists in the worst possible light: They use their overwhelming numbers (5 versus 1), threatening physiques, and a knife to rob a recently-graduated nurse on her way home. The scene is shot from the point of view of the woman and not at all played for laughs. There’s no sympathy to be had for these thugs, and they remain thorougly unlikeable after they callously throw away the nurse’s purse once they find it doesn’t contain anything of value, and hunt down a mysterious creature that seems more scared of them than they are of it, purely to prove the leader’s manliness. It is that latter action by Boyega’s wannabe tough guy Moses that brings the aliens to the block.

(Boyega, by the way, really is good in the film. He spends the first part mostly looking grim and determined, but gets to add characterisation to Moses as the movie goes on. I do hope he plays a happier character in Star Wars VII, though, one who has occasion to smile more than a single time. That’s not to say that the film is a dour affair. It’s punctuated by moments of sly humour, courtesy mostly of some younger kids, a middle-class college student who’d only wanted to score some weed, and the various henchmen/employees of a drug boss running the block.)

It would be understandable to cheer for the creatures once the teens start getting picked off, but one doesn’t, for two reasons. First, the script introduces another character, some sort of minor crime lord, who is a more obvious villain, someone who’s clearly mentally unhinged and who is pushing the kids, especially Moses, deeper into gang life. Second, it becomes clear early on that the teenagers are not all that competent. They are caught and/or trapped several times by adults who have it out for them (such as police and the afore-mentioned crime lord) and rescued not by their wits or fighting skills, but by monsters crashing getting the drop on their opponents, giving them a convenient opportunity to escape.

At the beginning of the film, they’re full of bluster, even enthustiastic about the prospect of hunting down “them nasty little gremlins”. This attitude is mirrored by two even younger children (about nine years old) who look up to the teens, emulate them with toy guns and want to run with the gang despite being told numerous times that they’re too young. The confidence they display is a result of their youthful ignorance that the situation is actually dangerous and something it really would be prudent to let the adults handle. The older teenagers’ foolhardy zeal is similarly misguided, and it disappears fairly soon. They’re not all that different from the little kids, just children play-acting as gangsters, but they’re old enough to realise the severity of the situation eventually.

They’re also old enough to know that their criminal activities are wrong even if they’re trying to suppress that feeling. There’s an interesting exchange in the film where they rationalise their previous robbery of the nurse by saying that they wouldn’t have done it had they known that she lives in their building. Shared poverty, negative experiences with biased police and less-than-ideal living situations has given them a tribal outlook on life that disregards social norms outside of their block. The film doesn’t excuse their behaviour (they’re criticised for it even by their own peer group), but puts it in a context that makes these characters, if not likable, then interesting enough to carry the movie. It also helps that the film doesn’t end on a completely triumphant note. Are these teens heroes? In part. Are they going to live happily ever after? Probably not. It’s complicated. Like real life.

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