Sunday, December 4, 2011

New Release Review: Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011)

Attack The Block is a lot of fun, and a pretty impressive debut feature from writer/director Joe Cornish, who recently worked with Edgar Wright and Steven Moffat on the Tintin screenplay. The film is produced through Big Talk Productions, known for films like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Paul and possess the same filmmaking smarts (setting an alien invasion in a South London council estate – what an idea) and relentless energy that made those modern comedy gems so instantly memorable. Attack the Block opened the 2011 Brisbane Film Festival and was one of the main reasons I considered making the journey north.

The endlessly quotable Attack the Block features a simple premise and wastes no time throwing us in. It blends the comedy, creature film and action genres pretty effectively. Full of tense and exciting heart-in-your-mouth chase sequences, as well as effectively overthrowing their block as a homely sanctuary, there are also plenty of laughs (love that South London youth lingo) and clever popular culture references (“It’s raining Gollums”). Throw in an unconventional gang of heroes, interesting and effective creature design, and a killer soundtrack, and it is hard to dismiss Attack the Block as anything other than a supremely cool film and essential cult viewing.

On her way home from work on Bonfire Night, an attractive young nurse, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), is mugged in the streets near her council estate apartment block in Kennington, South London by a gang of teenagers. Led by Moses (John Boyega), who carries a flip knife, the gang is also made up of Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones) and Biggz (Simon Howard). A falling object that lands in a nearby car interrupts the robbery. Seeing it as an unexpected opportunity to loot the car, Moses starts a search but is attacked by an abnormal creature – which he and his gang pursue into a nearby park and kill. Unsure what to do, but convinced it is an alien of some kind; they decide to take it to Ron (Nick Frost), a drug dealer with an interest in National Geographic (and the only one they know capable of identifying the creature) living in the Penthouse apartment of their tower block. While they decide how to profit from their discovery, they hide the alien in his fortified ‘weed room’, also crossing paths with Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), Ron’s boss. He pops up on several occasions later, convinced the juniors are trying to take over his turf.

When more creatures begin to fall from the sky, the group is eager to fight them – collecting any weapons they can find and taking it to the streets to confront them head on. What they discover is that these beasts are bigger (tagged as ‘gorilla-wolf motherfuckers’ by the group), and have jet-black fur, rows of sharp fluorescent teeth and are beset on taking down anyone who opposes them. Moses is arrested – identified as the mugger by Sam who is accompanying the police – but when the creatures attack the ‘feds’, the group realizes they don’t stand a chance and try to flee back to the block.

Pest’s leg is mauled and Biggz is forced to hide in a rubbish bin. They seek shelter with Sam (who eventually decides, for her safety, to stay with them) but after the intense Moses takes down one in Sam’s room, they later bunk up with some female friends. They throw around radical ideas about to the origins of the creatures, but the real reason, hypothesized by a stoner in a state of high, is actually pretty plausible. Well, plausible enough for a premise such as this. It is simply bad luck for the aliens that they land in an area where the local residents are intent on fighting back.

There is a challenge for viewers - identifying with and accepting the gang as the film’s unlikely heroes - having first been introduced to them mugging an innocent block resident. This is not difficult because soon after Moses takes down the creature we almost immediately warm to their larger-than-life personalities and comic chemistry. We find their enthusiasm infectious and their motivations to go badass on the invaders totally believable. Forming an alliance with their earlier victim works in a redemption theme, but amidst their bloated egos and disillusioned beliefs that they are saving the world (though they are defending their block – which is essentially their entire existence) they establish level-headedness and prove to be resourceful with makeshift weapons and objects. Of the performances John Boyega (quietly powerful here, and recently tied to a HBO special involving Spike Lee) and Alex Esmail (as the motor-mouth, but often-hilarious Pest) are my standouts, while Jodie Whittaker, Nick Frost and Luke Treadway (as Ron’s loyal weed customer) turn in solid supporting work.

Attack the Block, in my opinion, is a superior meshing of youth culture and monsters to J. J Abrams’ Super 8. While Abrams’ characters had their video cameras and an admiration for classic cinema, and it was a nostalgic throwback to previous eras of coming-of-age adventures and creature flicks, this feels fresh and new and features immature troublemakers tearing around on push-bikes, mo-peds and pizza delivery vehicles and taking their enemies down with firecrackers, baseball bats and blades.

It’s all very exciting, and the rapid editing, innovative photography, and unique and effective creature design (as well as a willingness to show the creatures early and managing to overcome the faults of too consciously hiding them, or them wearing out their welcome after early exposure) creates heightened tension. Of course, the film would not be as cool without an awesome synthesizer soundtrack from Basement Jaxx. I can’t recommend Attack the Block enough. It should find a comfortable spot in my Top 30 come the end of the year.

My Rating: ★★★★ (B+)


  1. I liked it and I thought it was pretty well-made for the tiny budget that they had. The accent took a little while for me to get used to, but it was all pretty humourous. I thought the aliens were especially very well-designed, and I can see this film becoming a cult-classic. But having said that, I'm a bit too jumpy for films like this. People around me were getting annoyed. And then there was that point in the middle of the night when there was a creepy light outside my door... but other than that, fun film.
    Good review.

  2. Loved the language, the performances and the soundtrack. Wasn't a massive fan of the creature design but it worked for the film and its budget limitations! Got to meet lots of the cast, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish at a preview screening too! I'm expecting really big things from Cornish in the future!

  3. That soundtrack was awesome, wasn't it? Moses outracing the monsters there at the end was one of the most thrilling moments I've had in a theater this year and so much of that was because of the soundtrack.

    I think my favorite part of this movie was the way it had a woman who was just mugged team up with her muggers to fend off an alien invasion. I mean, when the aliens finally come, that's how it's gonna be, right? Put aside our differences and defend the block.

    Nice review, Andy.

  4. I really enjoyed Attack The Block. I didn't think I would do...the characters aren't especially likable but it is intelligently written and uses its location really well to bring something new to the genre. As a science-fiction social-problem film it has to be one of the best!

  5. @ Nikhat - I don't think I was ever scared in this film, though I did jump a couple of times, and it was tense. That didn't disappoint me, because I thought the action was cool enough, and the film funny enough to still be really entertaining. I agree, early on, when the group are walking together and all talking very fast, it was difficult to follow what they were saying, but it got easier as the film progressed. A fun film, and one I have continued to be buzzed about.

    @ Pete - I thought the creatures worked well enough, but I thought the kids all did a great job, and I liked Jodie Whittaker too. Top soundtrack really gave it an edge and the general mayhem of the film kept it unpredictable. Look forward to more of Cornish's work - he has talent.

    @ Nick - Yeah, that was one of the best scenes. I was really into it for the same reason. Yeah, I thought setting the film in a council district of South London was really clever. The aliens don't know what hit them - getting the shit kicked out of them by a group of teenagers - but it is the way that (through Moses I think) that the other residents put their trust in these kids who instinctively went on the offensive, forming allies with unlikely people.

    @ Dan - I found it even more enjoyable than Super 8, which I did enjoy. I found the characters pretty likeable in the end. Especially Pest. That guy was good. I loved the fact that there ended up being nowhere to turn - the hallways, apartments and elevators of the block were all fraught with danger.

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