In any number of built up countries, the ‘problem’ of how to cheaply house those approaching the poverty line has usually resulted in state-funded, concentrated apartment living. Whether it’s the stack-up flats of the projects, the ghetto, or tenement blocks, the sheer numbers of people crammed in together create a pressure that guarantees rises in theft, assault, drug use and antisocial behaviour; a human ecosystem in which gangs and networks form much faster than in suburban living. It’s also a difficult place for young people to flourish, as they are easily pulled into violent drug gangs as a response to the tedium of block life. Lucky for the characters in Attack the Block, that banality is grandly interrupted…
This Block is a multi-storey South London tenement, an ugly edifice complete with shoddy elevators, flickering fluorescents and upended silo bins. Walking back home from the hospital, young nurse and block resident Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is mugged at knifepoint by a group of terrifyingly flippant high school age kids led by the steely Moses (John Boyega). They embody every kind of hoodie stereotype, tearing around on bikes and scooters with flick knives, yelling ‘”bruv”, “isn’t it” and “Ah ain’t even lyin’, believe” so that it echoes through shitty government-built concrete underpasses. The mugging is interrupted when a tiny, grotesque alien meteorically hurtles into a parked car from outer space. Moses and his gang bludgeon the creature to death and drag its body up to their mate Ron’s (Nick Frost, cast amusingly well) ‘weed room’ for safekeeping while they get blazed and discuss their prospects of fame and fortune for discovering a new species. But countless more aliens, bigger ones, are shooting down from outer space all around the block, and the boys’ encounter with the first alien will bring them, and Sam, a hell of a lot more trouble.
This is a rollicking movie, and a stellar directorial debut for Joe Cornish. Attack the Block is unpredictable, abandoning any one typical formula and getting from A to B in a really refreshing and hilarious way. The way the gang cross paths with other characters, split up and reunite is fast-paced and exciting, but never hard to follow. Notable accomplices in the fight against the aliens include two six-ish year old kids who insist on answering only to “Probs” and “Mayhem”, adorable terrors with no capacity to be deterred by real and present danger; a gaggle of gum-chewing chav girls with gold be-hooped ear lobes who nonetheless prove themselves capable in a tight spot; and lastly, the posh, lumbering biologist-to-be Brewis (Luke Treadaway), whose glassy, blazed eyes and brow-sweeping fop of blonde hair may induce a distinctly indi-folk swoon.
Attack the Block is written wonderfully. Its portrait of London teen culture, particularly the grime slang and that accents, bless, is deployed with heart and comic genius, especially as the gang begin to interact with characters a bit more out of their subcultural loop. A gang of teen criminals, despite their necessarily honed survival skills, is probably the last cast you might think of to star in a monster movie. Much of the hilarity comes from their response to proper science fiction occurrences with “Yo, check it, more of dem tings”, “Right naw, I feel li’ goin’ home, lockin’ mah door and playing FIFA” and “I’ve got low credit, one text left, this is too much madness to explain in one text”.
The special effects are great – minimal. There’s only one traditional, fleshy ‘creature’ and the rest of the monsters are characterised by their absorptive blackness and glow-in-the-dark teeth, (perhaps resembling a bizarro Brobee from Yo Gabba Gabba!? Yeah, I watch that). This means that special effects are never getting in the way of the story, the plight of the gang. There are some fantastic slow motion shots too, in particular those where the gang set off small-time fireworks and flares.
Attack the Block’s soundtrack is a pumping, energising collection of beats by Basement Jaxx, taking in elements of dubstep, drum ‘n’ bass and grime beats, capturing not only the mood of modern London teen life, but also would embody what the characters would want the soundtrack to be if they knew their wild night was being made into a movie. Check out the Attack the Block site for a taste of what I mean (unts-unts-unts). It’s a stylish sound and somehow manages to enliven the action whilst also keeping intact the comedic or ironic elements of every scene – kind of like the way teen gangsters keep up the attitude even when they’re in trouble.
I was in London during the height of the 2008 spate of stabbings and the sense of fear around certain areas in the South Bank and anywhere in view of an estate building was palpable. Nobody was making eye contact while walking at night, and never on trains. This kind of fear was dealt with by Daniel Barber’s excellent film with Michael Caine, 2009’s Harry Brown. Perhaps the progression from that genuinely chilling film, to Attack the Block, means that we are ready to try and tackle ‘hoodie’ culture with humour. But frankly, what is more likely, and what makes this such a compelling film for its characters, is that it so early on casts villains as the protagonists. After holding up Sam at knifepoint, the young gang have a long way to go and a lot to prove to the audience before they can appear redeemed, which they must presumably do before they can defeat the alien threat. Indeed, it seems the aliens are only a kind of horror in passing for much of the film, and that inter-gang warfare, not extra-terrestrial attack, is the most unpredictable and senseless way to be end up ‘murked’.
There tends to be a lot of discussion about these gangs of kids, about ‘what can be done’ for them, or how to give them more ways to earn an honest quid or spend free time. Harry Brown seemed to come up trumps, in that Harry simply kills all of the drug propagators and junkies in his apartment building to create peace. Attack the Block doesn’t seem to do much better. Sure, the characters seem to renounce their criminality, and I’m sure their lives will never be the same, or as dead-ended again: but it took an alien invasion for them to unite with the neighbours who they previously terrorized or grasp any level of moral duty and conviction.
This is not to say that these gangs of kids are without any moral compass. Attack the Block sets out the rules and ethics of this street culture brilliantly. You look after your own, nurture the kids, provided they come from the same side of the track as you, and work your way up the chain, doing what you’re told for fear of getting shot for it. Above all, street culture creates an unspoken loyalty to place. The sense of territory Moses feels is instinctive – although his particular apartment is meagre and filthy, he’ll wager his own demise for the right to protect it and the rest of the block, because it’s his place.
There’s a hell of a lot going on in this movie. It’s an adventure flick, which threatens at times to become a disaster movie (the kind where a group of people are picked off one by one) but tastefully pulls back, it’s also got monsters, bonding between adults and kids, the posh and the urban, it’s a bit of a stoner film yet it also has plenty to say about the plight of young people crammed into London with no money, nothing to do and no beauty to speak of in their environment. How many layers is that? I’ve lost count. What’s more, Attack the Block, whilst many of these genres are only touched on, doesn’t mishandle or truncate any of them, allowing them all to fit together in a manner so logical that it’s a wonder this kind of film hasn’t been made before. Trust. 8.5/10