Film Review: Attack the Block

2011– 88mn – 15

Directed & written by Joe Cornish. Starring John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Luke Treadaway, Nick Frost. Review by Walter Nichols.

Throughout cinematic history, invading aliens of all ilks have usually had to battle the US Army, or a small group of clear-eyed realists – rarely anything between. Until now. This year, in Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block, the hordes from outer space meet their most lethal foes: inner-city hoodies.

In this great, original take on the alien invasion film, the aliens are huge, furry, feral creatures with glowing teeth, who crash land one by one in South London in the middle of the night. The first one of them smashes into our planet just in time to interrupt youth Moses (John Boyega) and his mates from mugging young nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker). The young men hunt the creature down and kill it, inviting the wrath of the other aliens, who chase them all over the housing estate. The teenagers run back to their block of flats (the “block” of the title) and fight to keep the aliens out. In the process, they are assisted by Sam – who, it turns out, has just moved into the block herself – and potheads Ron (Nick Frost) and Brewis (Luke Treadaway).

The film, written and directed by Cornish (Joe off Adam & Joe), was produced by the people behind Shaun of the Dead; and while it doesn’t have the same level of originality or pure manic creativity, it’s a clever concept very well executed. The film evokes brilliantly the sort of sci-fi flicks that abounded in the 70s and 80s. Its texture and feel is that of a much-used VHS tape. But the special effects are top-notch and intelligently used. Our first full view of one of the aliens comes frustratingly late (the characters themselves have killed it and taken a good close look at it long before we, the audience, are allowed the same experience), but when it does , it’s a much more believable and realistic one than one would expect from a low-ish budget British film. The aliens’ very anatomy is, to everyone’s credit, unlike any screen alien’s before it. The script is equal parts thrilling and funny, and it chugs along to a satisfying, unexpected, ingenious end.

Cornish’s main achievement, and one that’s worthy of praise, is how he draws his main characters. He’s well served by the whole ensemble’s brilliant acting – all the more impressive as all of the young men were street-cast, and none had ever professionally acted before. Leading man John Boyega especially has such presence he’s bound, if he so wishes, to be a fixture on our screens for years to come.

These young boys are realistic representations of council estate youths, in their uniform of hooded tops, baseball caps, baggy trousers and huge trainers. In their first appearance, they gleefully and – openly threateningly – mug a young woman at knifepoint, the six of them against the one of her, circling her on their tricked-out bicycles like beasts of prey. They joke about it afterwards and – as a sign of their experience, real or imagined, in the criminal trade – whinge when they find out she’s a low-paid nurse, her purse virtually empty. When they encounter the alien creature, their first and only instinct is to kill it. At the same time they’re entirely sympathetic young people: they’re loyal to each other, brave, often funny, and at their heart are just abandoned boys acting older than they are to fit in in a world where hardness and aggression are worn as signs of power. Cornish also must get credit for never trying to cheesily redeem or excuse them. There are no political speeches here. These are his characters, and he is true to them. When one of them tells Sam that, if they’d known she’d lived on the block, they never would have attacked her – saying it as if it makes what they did all right – many might be outraged (as Daily Mail readers and columnists are guaranteed to be) and others might laugh. Cornish doesn’t take sides. This is what young hoodies in real life would say, it’s a line true to the character who speaks it, and that’s the spirit in which it’s said. Attack the Block, really, works because of how real it is: it’s about a group of young men for whom belonging, rather than any moral code, is everything. They have to re-assess that simplistic view when they’re attacked by outsiders – especially when, as here, said outsiders are flesh-hungry monsters from outer space…

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Star rating: 4 out of 5 stars