Somewhere on a council estate in South London, hostile aliens have fallen from the sky. A local teenage gang take it upon themselves to fight off the unwanted visitors, but quickly discover they are outnumbered by the pitch-black, bear-like creatures with glowing, razor sharp teeth. Set to a distinctively British electronica soundtrack, courtesy of Basement Jaxx, Attack the Block is a fast-paced and inventive action/science-fiction film with an unconventional set of heroes. Making his feature film directorial début, writer/director Joe Cornish does a remarkable job cutting straight to the excitement and keeping it constant while ensuring that character and narrative development occurs simultaneously. It’s also a film with plenty to say about perceptions and attitudes towards class in England, but the message is contained within the chase and fight scenes.
The gang of teenagers are not the type of characters often seen as the heroic protagonists in action films. Kids like the ones featured in Attack the Block usually feature in social-realist films such as Fish Tank and many of the films of Ken Loach, or far worse, in utterly uncommendable films such as Harry Brown where they are portrayed unquestionably as animalistic villains who deserve to be murdered. Attack the Block doesn’t pretend the kids are saints or defend them as simply being misunderstood or troubled. In fact, they are introduced mugging Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a nurse and their neighbour, to establish that they aren’t loveable misfits. They are also the initial aggressors towards the creatures and a major theme of the film is that all actions have consequences.
However, Attack the Block is never preachy or didactic and there aren’t any easy explanations on offer for why the kids are out mugging innocent people. They are never explicitly redeemed or excused, but through the victim/aggressor dynamic that the film explores the boys are certainly humanised to have identities beyond that of criminals. The later experiences shared by gang leader Moses (John Boyega) and Sam while fighting off the invaders facilitate mutual awareness and empathy that goes beyond the first perceptions that the film deliberately offers in the opening sequences. Attack the Block overtly sets itself a challenge by making its protagonists unsympathetic at the beginning and a major part of the film’s skill is in endearing them to the audience without resorting to trite social messages.
The secondary characters of course aren’t as fleshed out as Sam and Moses, but they are still appealing and recognisable social types. Drug dealer Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) desperately wants to be an American gangsta, his deputy dealer Ron (Nick Frost) is a loveable stoner and buyer Brewis (Luke Treadaway) is an awkward middle-class kid caught up in the chaos. The closest the film gets to direct class critique is through the Brewis character who is affectionately mocked for wanting to selectively appropriate aspects of the estate culture – the drugs and music – while being terrified of other aspects – the poverty and crime. Cornish is never cruel about the way Brewis is depicted, continuing the film’s non-judgemental approach towards its characters. Cornish is possibly also mindful that while Sam or Moses are the characters most audiences will lean towards identifying with, large segments of them probably have a lot more in common with Brewis.
Visually Attack the Block is effective on a number of levels. Cornish uses the apartment block’s corridors, stairwells, elevators and small rooms to create several thrilling sequences. The film offers more shocks than real scares, but the creatures look suitably menacing and mysterious. The film is also very atmospherically lit to create lots of suspenseful glows in the distance. This visual style along with the film’s fully rounded characters, energetic music, unpredictability, subtle social commentary and integration of exposition within action makes Attack the Block an extremely strong feature film début for Cornish. It’s also breathtakingly good fun.