I’m late, relatively speaking, to checking out Attack the Block, but I’d be surprised if it hasn’t already garnered comparisons to Shaun of the Dead or other Edgar Wright flicks, mostly for its genre affinity and British humor. Attack the Block is not, however, a genre mishmash, nor is it particularly self-aware. It is well-written and damn fun.
It’s nice to see an alien film and not a return to the overload of zombies and vampires of late. A group of kids led by 15 year-old Moses (John Boyega) protect their South London block from an extraterrestrial invasion. Attack the Blockmostly avoids genre trappings (except for the obligatory fireworks/pyrotechnics expert. That’s getting really old), is directed with style but without the hyperactive sensibility of many ill-staged, music video-homage blockbuster-types, and has a pretty sweet score.
The young cast in this is really great. How hard is it to direct kids? Director Joe Cornish gets a whole cast of them, including two real youngsters and wanna-be-gangsters, the self-nicknamed Probs and Mayhem (Sammy Williams and Michael Ajao). The performances are surprisingly natural and funny.
More on that directorial style: though shot in glossy, flared out cinematography (not my preferred look), Cornish is actually pretty sparse with his shot selection. Even the action sequences – and there are more than a few – are generally staged with a minimum of shots, starting with a wide master, and usually just moving straight into two-shots or singles. That the camera constantly moves and that there is plenty of atmosphere (literal atmosphere: smoke, fireworks, etc) is more the “cool look” than the frames themselves. Cornish’s style is actually fairly traditional. He utilizes a few nice dolly-wipes, but for the most part this is shot-reverse-shot that stays on the 180 line, gives close-ups at dramatic moments, and uses fairly standard horror/sci-fi film reveals for scary moments (creatures popping into frame). It’s a testament to the feasibility of classic filmic storytelling in a modern setting and a genre film, where the technique doesn’t feel tried, stale, or archaic.
Cornish also wrote the script, which is very classically structured. Characters grow and learn and change. There are obvious segues from act 1 to 2 and 2 to 3. There’s a weak/strong female character, a clear goal, subplots, and a very stated resolution. The characters are likable and the good guys win. The action starts in the first five minutes. This is the type of screenplay that I frequently complain about (I think I said that Tom McCarthy’s Win Win, which fits this mold exactly, felt ‘too written’), and though I do still feel that way, Cornish’s subject matter is fresh enough, and his sequences are so engaging that, even though those aforementioned segues are clear, I’m not looking for them. Maybe I realize about 10 minutes after we’ve moved into the “run away” mode of act 2 that I’m now watching act 2, but it’s only because there’s a moment of pause and I can take into consideration where we are in the overall. Meaning: the writing plays as story, and not as words on a page…which is how it should.
I don’t know that Attack the Block is one of the very best films of 2011. Maybe it is. I have to see a few more still. But it is easily one of the best genre films of 2011. It’s one of the best alien films in a good while. And it’s likely to mark a ton of new young talent’s entry into feature-filmmaking.
It’s also worth noting how Cornish slyly turns his film into a commentary on life in an underprivileged section of London. When a character announces that it’s not drugs, rap music, cops or gangsters, but…aliens, he’s not just making a joke about the absurdity of the situation, but is also commenting directly on the acceptance of the influx of all things pejorative into the ghetto. It’s not strange to these kids that the aliens only attack South London – why wouldn’t they? This is where they’ll actually find a fight. Cornish’s film therefore also succeeds in representing a very definite place, but with a mixture of identities within that place. One particular montage shows all of the kids that are under Moses’ unspoken leadership entering their households. Some kiss a mother or grandmother, another reluctantly walks the dog. Moses, we learn, lives with his uncle who “comes and goes, but more goes” and sleeps in a sheetless bed on a superhero sleeping bag. Brewis (Luke Treadway) drives a fancy car into the neighborhood to buy pot and though he lives at his parents he still complains about paying rent. But he also yearns for acceptance from the kids that are obviously much younger than he and it’s his knowledge that contributes to the ultimate destruction of the aliens (are we to read: outside of the neighborhood the tool = knowledge, within the neighborhood the tool = survival skills?). Sam (Jodie Whitaker) is mugged by Moses and co. in the first 10 minutes. She’s white and a nurse. She lives in their building, but her apartment looks like it could be pulled from an Ikea catalog. She’s got some survival skills of her own and brains to boot, acting therefore as the bridge between the section represented by Brewis and that represented by Moses. Ultimately it’s less about race (Pest, one of Moses’ crew is white) as it is about straight-up character and place.