I was primed to hate Attack the Block, I really was. This is a film that came out earlier in the summer in the UK and had good reviews and was predictably compared to Shaun of the Dead. The film ended up only doing 2 million at the UK box office which is probably a bit below what the makers were expecting. The ‘heroes’ of the film are a bunch of south London hoodies who recently appeared on TV screens as looters across the country. This sad situation means that the film may even be avoided now it’s out on DVD. Also shortly after its UK release, Americans got wind of it and started to review it on the usual geek websites as it screened at festivals. The way our American film geek cousins talked about Attack the Block; it was as if Bruce Campbell directed a Star Wars sequel starring Nathan Fillion. They went lunatic for it, proclaiming the film to be the best film of 2011. I had online friends from across the pond quoting the film to me before I even saw it. This level of hyperbole usually guarantees I’m going to be disappointed in a film once I see it. I’m happy to report that whilst it's not water into wine, Attack the Block is one of the most purely non stop entertaining films I’ve had the pleasure of watching in recent times.
The film begins in South London where Nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is heading home after a long day. Sam is stopped and mugged by Moses (John Boyega) and his crew of wannabe gangsters who live on the same council estate as Sam. Moses and his group retreat from the scene of the crime and start to brag and laugh about their victory over a helpless woman. Suddenly a meteor crashes and destroys a car, a small monkey like creature attacks Moses and flees into a park. The group follow the creature into a dead end and kill it; they take it back to ‘the block’ as a prize that will make them famous. Once in the block they go to visit dope dealer/smoker Ron (Nick Frost) to see if they can store the carcass in his weed room. Ron agrees but makes Moses run it past local gangster and dealer Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) first. Hi-Hatz agrees but makes Moses become a cocaine dealer for him. Whilst celebrating this new arrangement the gang witness more meteors landing around their estate and assuming its more like the one they have already killed they go out to hunt down the creatures. To their horror the gang find that the ones that have just arrived are ten times larger and more viscous than the one they killed and they are swarming across their block. All the residents of the block; gangsters, stoners and even nurses have to band together if they are going to survive the night.
At the start of this film, I felt my teeth start to grind. It depicts a mugging and the sense of misguided entitlement that seems to be the problem with our youth today. I steeled myself to be annoyed greatly as the film went on but gradually I warmed to these characters. The way they talked was somewhat impenetrable for sure but after a while the speech patterns and modern day slang became charming and crucially very very funny. There is also a level of remorse projected by some of the characters over the mugging, especially after they find out that Sam is a nurse. As the plot goes on, the gang reveal hidden depths that you would not expect these sorts of characters to have. As a result you start to care more and more about them and when characters die (often horribly I might add) you genuinely feel bad for them. As the alien threat is presented and grows in size, there is talk from the gang about defending their community and standing up for the residents of their block to fight back. Its something that was sadly missing from real life recently where the London riots started being about something but then went on to be about opportunism. Ah if only life were like the movies. There is an attempt at a plot thread about the police arresting gang members on sight without provocation which comes to the boil come the ending, but this sadly feels a little half baked and shoehorned in. The film didn’t need it and had enough well thought out social relevance without this.
So social subtext and motivations out of the way, the story and plot move along at a great pace. There are scares galore as the monsters hunt the gang and rampage around the estate. The monsters have a really unique look as well; they are completely black hairy shadows with sharp luminous teeth. It’s unclear if this was a budget decision because black has got to be easier to animate with CG but it works. Whilst the film is not as gory as I would have liked, the monster attacks are quick brutal and savage. They reminded me of the werewolf attacks in An American Werewolf in London which so shocked me as a kid. This film was probably an influence on Joe Cornish as was The Lost Boys; the scenes where the gang get tooled up reminded me of that film and definitely made me sit forward in my chair. Obviously there isn’t much left new to say with the monster movie so spotting the influences and plot devices from other films is part of the fun. The musical score for example is very John Carpenter esque, but like his early 80s work given a modern spin and urbanized. The setting of a south London council estate was a smart decision, it’s not something we have seen before and allows for a real melting pot of characters from every background and race, Attack the Block has a broader appeal than you would think.
The young cast are all very impressive and believable in these roles. Its like Joe Cornish did a casting call on the streets or something and the cast all bring their best to the table. John Boyega as the leader Moses is impressive and has a kind of brooding intensity not seen very often in young British actors, we will see a lot more of this man. Jodie Whittaker is not an actress I am familiar with but she is great as the heart of the film. Whittaker has a real vulnerability and caring side that appeals to you and when she suffers at the beginning you really believe that this person did not deserve the mugging in any way and she is the person you root for. Nick Frost in a smaller role is his usual dependable self, often just using one line to walk away with a scene completely.
Attack the Block is great entertainment and it’s a shame it failed to connect with the very audience that would enjoy it the most. I think it was a case of wrong time wrong place with this one, but now it’s out on DVD it should gain fans as more and more people put aside their prejudice and enjoy the film for the damn fine piece of entertainment that it is. I can’t wait to see what Joe Cornish does next.
Extras: Two Audio Commentaries with cast and crew, Behind the Block, Creature Feature, Meet the Gang, Joe's Massage, It’s a rap and Unfilmed action featurettes, trailer.
Attack The Block is released in the UK on DVD/Blu-ray september 19th