Movie Review: Attack the Block
By Matthew Huntley
August 16, 2011
In my review of the big-budget Cowboys & Aliens, I mentioned that the idea of cowboys battling extra-terrestrials was more inspired than the movie’s execution of it. It took two classic genres -Western and science fiction - and combined them into one, but it didn’t do much else. Now comes Attack the Block, another alien invasion picture with a fraction of the budget but which leaves a more lasting impression. It too combines a genre with science fiction, this time urban drama, but is bolder and fresher in its approach. If there’s one alien vs. human movie you should see this summer, this is the one.
The movie takes place in a seedy district of South London, where on this most peculiar night, fireworks are being lit and displayed around the city. A young nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker) walks home when she spots a gang of sketchy teenagers, headed by a punk named Moses (John Boyega). They attack her when suddenly an unknown object crash lands into a nearby car. Sam escapes but the boys stick around to inspect the object, which turns out to be an alien creature that scratches Moses’ face. He proceeds to follow it and kill it.
In the boys’ apartment complex, which will serve as headquarters for the ensuing action, Moses asks the block’s leading drug dealer, Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), if he can hide the creature’s corpse in his weed room. After all, it’s considered the safest place on the block. But the complex is about to become the most dangerous as dozens of new alien pods start landing around the neighborhood. So the boys gather up their baseball bats, machetes, and water guns and take off on their bikes to investigate. When one of the kid’s dogs sniffs around but doesn’t come back, Moses and the boys know the new aliens aren’t like the first one they killed. They are larger, stronger and have sharp, glowing blue teeth.
When Sam brings the police around to arrest Moses, the entire block becomes something of an isolated war zone as various characters try to survive not only each other, but also the gruesome, bear-like aliens.
Given this setup, why does Attack the Block work better than Cowboys & Aliens, despite their somewhat similar premise? For one thing, Block doesn’t simply take two genres and combine them. Rather, it mixes things up a bit and changes some of the rules, tossing in unexpected moments of humor and social commentary. Cowboys played both its genres very straight, and while Block takes itself just as seriously (like Cowboys, it’s neither tongue-in-cheek nor aware of its own absurdity), the characters are more interesting and complex. In Cowboys & Aliens, the cowboys and aliens were just that and didn’t go beyond their types. But the characters in Block have more layers, especially Moses. He’s not just some punk kid looking for trouble, although it would seem that way at first, and Sam is not just some whining damsel. There’s more to them and we grow to care about them just as they come to respect and protect each other.
Another difference is the aliens themselves. In Cowboys, the creatures were traditional stock movie types - the kinds of aliens that come to mind when you think of an alien invasion movie. But the creatures in Block are more original and threatening. The special effects team has created some ominous figures whose only prerogative is to hunt and feed (for reasons I won’t reveal). They are predators and the movie doesn’t attempt to make them more than that. If it did, they wouldn’t be as menacing.
There are many effective shots of the aliens running on all fours down hallways and around the complex, especially in long shots. The use of lighting and shadows is particularly striking, as these heighten the tension because we’re not quite able to discern where the creatures are or what they look like.
I also enjoyed the movie’s sense of humor and social commentary. The humor is thanks mostly to Nick Frost and Luke Treadaway as another local drug dealer and buyer. They mostly hang out in the apartment complex and observe the action, but their droll expressions make the movie lighthearted when it needs to be.
As a social commentary, I took it that writer-director Joe Cornish wanted us to look beyond the stereotypes of the characters. The assumption is that kids like Moses are ne’er-do-wells who are up to no good and have no future. We’re initially meant to side with Sam and view them as heartless muggers, but the movie shifts its perspective and actually develops them into more fully-realized people with distinct personalities. And despite what the kids are up against, they remain kids, meaning they act impulsively, irrationally and are easily frightened. I liked how they didn’t suddenly became amazing athletes or warriors. They fight the aliens the way kids probably would.
Attack the Block illustrates how two traditional genres, despite their rules and regulations, can be combined into something new and fresh. Perhaps the makers of Cowboys & Aliens believed it was just too great a risk to try anything different with such big names attached and so much money invested, but “Attack the Block” makes it happen. The movie is thoroughly entertaining and, with its pumped up soundtrack and slick editing style, never stops moving. At a brisk 88 minutes, it proceeds with urgency, and although it probably won’t reach half the audience of Cowboys, it’s a safe bet those who do see it will remember it longer.