Attack the Block (2011)
Attack the Block is the hip new sci-fi comedy/thriller from across the pond. The Brtis know a thing or two about elevating genre movies to an art form. While not rising to the same level of executive producer Edgar Wright’s oeuvre, this is one of the most fun experiences I’ve had in a movie theater all year.
On New Year’s Eve in a South London ghetto, a very different kid of firework is lighting the moonlit sky. An alien race is crashing to Earth as fiery meteorites, which the kids of the neighborhood term “Gollums.” Moses (John Boyega) is the leader of a group of teenage wannabe hoodlums. Their crazy night begins with mugging Sam (Jodie Whitaker), a nurse who lives in the boys’ apartment complex. Moses and his crew later run into Sam and need her help when one of their own is injured. The alien monsters have descended upon their block, scaling the apartment building looking for easy prey. Moses and other block residents band together to battle a common foe, the outer space monsters, which have the misfortune of trying to invade the wrong neighborhood.
Attack the Block is a refreshing spin on a genre that seemingly had covered every ground. But lo, it never covered the modern urban landscape, or, as the tagline succinctly puts it: inner city vs. outer space. It’s not long before you realize that writer/director Joe Cornish (writer of the upcoming Tin Tin flick) is the real deal. The camera angles are lively and inventive, without crossing over into self-infatuation for style’s sake. The cinematography by Thomas Townend is delightful to look at, often making our own home feel like an alien landscape with harsh color tones. The movie has the slick look we associate with music videos and commercials, but never does the movie let the visuals overwhelm the story. The edits are crisp and quick, packing a lot of material into a small 99 minutes and doing well to quicken your pulse during several iterations of the alien attacks. But most of all, the film is completely, unabashedly fun with a capital F. It has a swagger to it, adopting the same cocksure attitude of its main characters. The accents and the breathless jargon take some adjusting, but by the time we’re running from aliens you’re pretty much at the same pace of astonishment with the characters, forgetting the language barrier. I was quickly sucked into the world of this movie, able to enjoy the depth of skill by the invisible technicians. There’s an immense sense of satisfaction watching this crew band together to take out superior numbers of baddies, some of them even Earthlings. Cornish confines his narrative focus to one apartment building over the course of one night, setting up our orientation to the building so that when we have characters running back and forth, and various storylines criss-crossing, we are kept in the loop. As people start becoming monster chow, the stakes get even higher.
The dialogue is regularly clever without having to stoop for self-aware gags. This is not a genre spoof. This is played relatively straight, just with amusing characters (“You’d be better off calling the Ghostbusters, love.”). One of the kids, who is on a pay-as-you-go cell plan, breathlessly says, “I only got one text left. This is just too much madness for one text!” Attack the Block is the right combination of scary and funny, the same fine line that its forebear, Shaun of the Dead, so successfully walked. This is the kind of movie that genre fans tell their pals about in breathless declarations of awesome before falling over dizzy. Nick Frost, star of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, even has a minor roll as the neighborhood pot supplier. While Block doesn’t approach Shaun’s utter genre-spoofing greatness, there is enough of squandered potential in Cornish’s script, particularly how the various pieces ultimately stack together for its standard but effective fist-pumping climax, to keep Block from being crowned an instant genre classic. The characters remain little more than types, distinguishable by the few traits thrown to the actors like meager breadcrumbs (kid with glasses, angrier kid, white kid, etc.). If you’re a fan of Shaun of the Dead, and witty, bloody sci-fi, then you already know that Attack of the Block is destined to beam into your home.
The aliens themselves deserve a special mention since they break away from the traditional mold of cosmic movie monster we’re familiar with. These minimalist aliens look more like giant yeti creatures that run on all fours. They’re all black, like inky black hole light-cannot-penetrate black, which is scary but also a clever way to hide the shortages of a limited budget and the reality of people in suits. The only thing that stands out is a set of fluorescent blue jaws that snap wildly. It’s like the monsters ate a can of glow sticks. This aspect is smartly used at points to pump up suspense. It’s a novel approach that veers away from the H.R. Geiger (Alien) stuff that’s been copied and recopied to death for the last 30 years. These aren’t smart aliens. They’re more like rabid beasts overwhelmed by their biological impulses. These aliens don’t come across as organized as other movie aliens. It seems like they’re just floating around through the void of space waiting to land on the right rock and multiply.
The musical score is greatly enhanced through the talents of Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe, better known to big beat electronica fans as Basement Jaxx. The musical duo provide a score tinged with their famous electronic mélange of sound, including pieces that sound like retro video game sound effects (Space Invaders?), 1950s sci-fi movie scores thick with Theremin use, and an ongoing sludgy beat that weaves in and out of the picture. Working with Steven Price (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), traditional rousing musical pieces are enhanced with the Basement brothers’ dubsetp influenced bass and drum lines. The score perfectly matches the frenzy of what’s happening onscreen, evoking a fuzzy mood. I have been listening to clips of the Attack the Block score for days. It’s not as integrated and essential to the film as Run Lola Run’s famously kinetic electronica score (the standard bearer of all electronica-enhanced scores), but I was delighted every time it remerged. With the Chemical Brothers score for Hanna and Oscar-winner Trent Reznor’s score for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo later this year, this may be the best time yet for film lovers that enjoy toe tapping to some electronic beats. These kinds of scores age so much better than synth scores, one of the absolute worst things ever to happen in the history of movies (Apocalypse Now is almost unmatchable thanks to its dreadful synth score).
Of course your level of enjoyment is going to severely rest upon whether you want the main characters to survive or get eaten. Attack the Block begins with an empathy deficit, meaning it puts its hoodlums immediately in a hole that they might not get out of. Our first introduction to Moses and the gang is watching them mug Sam. Later on one of the guys says the knife that was bared was just for show, and that the boys were just as scared as she was. I doubt that. When you’re on the receiving end of a weapon, and outnumbered, and surprised, it sure seems like you got it worse. The movie then spends the rest of its running time with these wannabe ruffians, and we do get to know them slightly better but really only slightly. Some of the kids have absentee parenting situations, which isn’t too shocking, and occasionally a character will take a moment to reflect, thinking beyond the situation, blaming the government in a fit of paranoia for being behind the alien nasties. One kid even makes a curt remark when he finds out Sam’s boyfriend helps impoverished kids in Africa. “We don’t got poor kids here that could use some help?” he comments. Well, kid, I wouldn’t dismiss the magnitude of systemic poverty in the African continent, but you could have made your point without seeming like a dick. And these are our characters. They blather a lot; in fact they rarely stop talking. Eventually they do apologize to Sam for mugging her and Moses does take the mantle of hero to redeem himself. However, by that time some audience members may have checked out. Attack of the Block is decidedly less fun if you don’t give a fig for its wannabe thug figures.
Attack the Block is like a delirious head rush, witty, full of energy and style to spare, and an infectious attitude that washes over you. The movie delivers what Super 8 promised, namely the bond of kids coming together to thwart an alien invasion on their home turf. This is a high-energy flick that succeeds as a comedy and a thriller, with a few nasty splashes of gore thrown in for good measure. It has some issues that keep it from the pantheon of genre greatness, but I won’t quibble the movie to death. Not when I get something as deliriously entertaining as Attack the Block.
Nate’s Grade: A-