There’s something about Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block that evokes the cinema of John Carpenter, in particular his early ‘80s masterful offerings, Escape from New York and The Thing. There’s the same fearless energy, the same mastery of B-movie tropes and codes, and a similar approach to social commentary through highly entertaining science fiction. But Attack the Block is not Super 8, J.J. Abrams’s cloying and manipulative mess of a film that tries so hard to emulate Spielberg it ends up running on nothing but empty nostalgia; it’s not so much a throwback to the more action-oriented science fiction films of the ‘80s as a spiritual successor to them, with clear 21st century sensibilities.
The most obvious nod to Carpenter is perhaps the film’s opening shot, a dark, starry sky that brings to mind the opening of The Thing, to the point that you almost expect a spaceship to zoom past only to crash land somewhere in Antarctica. Instead the camera pans down to reveal a busy London street corner and the outside of an Underground station. A young woman, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), emerges from the station, and as she makes her way home, the large, well-lit streets progressively give way to smaller, darker alleys. Fireworks sporadically go off in the background, making both her and the viewer jumpy. The laws of cinema dictate that something happen to her before she can get home. Then she finds herself alone in an alley with five hooded teenagers, who surround her and crowd her in until she is face to face (or rather, face to bandanna and baseball cap) with their leader, Moses (John Boyega).
This is the film’s defining moment. The mugging is a short and brutal affair; Sam is shoved to the ground and made to surrender her phone and purse, and when she refuses to give up her ring, Moses pulls a knife. Right away, Attack the Block sets itself apart from Super 8 or E.T.. Abrams’s and Spielberg’s protagonists are also teenagers, but they’re nerdy white middle-class kids; they’re future world-renown directors, stand up citizens and family men. They’re outsiders only in the sense that all teenagers, regardless of class or race, are outsiders. Above all, they’re safe; there’s nothing dangerous or subversive about them.
The protagonists of Attack the Block, on the other hand, are anything but safe. The films sets them up as thugs, helped by the audience’s conscious or unconscious prejudices—the kids are very obviously not white, and speak the kind of English you won’t hear on the BBC. They’re outsiders because they’re poor, black, and live in South London; they’re not future anything because they’re not sure themselves they even have a future, even before homicidal aliens invade their neighborhood. These are your heroes, a bunch of kids who will rob a woman at knifepoint, then callously complain that they always pick the wrong targets while riffling through her mostly empty wallet. Attack the Block challenges you (and Sam, in many ways a surrogate for the audience) to see beyond that ugly first encounter, and gives you plenty of reasons to do so.
The mugging ends when a small alien creature crashes into a nearby car, providing a diversion that lets Sam run away. When the kids pull back their hoods, what’s most striking is just how young they look. Soon, as they’re running through the park chasing after the alien, then walking back to the block with their gory trophy tied to a stick, they stop to be a unit and turn into five very distinct individuals. There’s Moses, the sullen leader, who speaks but little and rarely smiles; motor-mouthed Pest (Alex Esmail), all witty charm and one-liners; the intense and perpetually scowling Dennis, or Young Den (Franz Drameh); round-faced Jerome (Leeon Jones), who seems way too nice to mug anybody; and impetuous Biggz (Simon Howard), with his embarrassingly involved mother and his constant desire to impress. The kids, portrayed by a bunch of unknown but solid actors (Boyega and Esmail are particularly brilliant), are quick-witted and funny, and more than willing to go out and kick some alien ass, armed with chains, bats, fireworks, and even a katana.
Soon, though, they find themselves facing not the diminutive creature that interrupted the mugging session, but “alien gorilla-wolf motherfuckers,” large black monsters with no eyes and fluorescent bluish-green teeth. So it’s back to the block, where they have to contend not only with the aliens, but also with local drug lord Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) and, of course, with the police, less helpful than ever. As they try to survive this eventful night, they run into Sam again, and are forced to join forces with her. From tormenters, they turn into protectors. Rest assured, though, that the damsel-in-distress paradigm does not survive the night intact.
With all the action and chaos that ensue, there are plenty of thrills (and laughs) to be had. Yet Cornish never forgets about the problematic opening scene. Time and again he comes back to it, giving the kids plenty of opportunities to defend themselves and explain—if not justify—their actions. They’re never given a free pass, and their arguments are often met with skepticism and derision (and with the occasional “fuck off” from Sam). And while Attack the Block never tries to paint the mugging of a nurse by a bunch of teenagers as anything but a despicable and cowardly act, it gives us an idea as to why those teenagers might do it in the first place.
The specter of parental abandonment looms large, of course (though Biggz’s mom might have something to say about that). The only adults with any significant screen time are Ron (Nick Frost, redeeming himself after the awful Paul), a debonair drug dealer; his posh, fish-out-of-water customer Brewis (Luke Treadaway); and Hi-Hatz, who fancies himself king of the block but isn’t quite prepared to deal with an alien invasion. Adults are either comic relief or antagonists, and the kids are left to their own devices when it comes to fighting the aliens, just as they are the rest of the time. (There’s a very short exchange towards the end of the film between Moses and Sam that breaks my heart every single time because of what it reveals about the way Moses sees himself.)
And then there’s the police. “They arrest us for nothing,” Pest complains, which may seem a tad hypocritical given the way the film opens. Yet when the police would be truly needed, not only do they fail to help, they actually get in the way by putting the block on lockdown, thus preventing anyone else from coming to lend a hand. It’s hard not to read this as a metaphor for the ineffectiveness of the culture of repression that has been fostered over the past few decades. This policy cannot prevent the mugging of nurses; all it does is contribute to the feeling of disenfranchisement that leads to Pest’s sentiment, and to the punctual explosions of violence we’ve seen most recently in London and in the Parisian suburbs not so long ago.
What makes Attack the Block so effective, of course, is that it isn’t a political pamphlet. What it is, first and foremost, is brilliant entertainment, funny and suspenseful and even, at times, surprisingly gory—not The Thing-gory, but it’s bloodier than you might expect from the posters and trailers. The kids are endearing and charismatic, their energy infectious, and if you find yourself muttering “Believe!” as you exit the theater, well, you won’t be the only one.
And since I feel the kids should have the last word, I’ll let Pest, endless purveyor of quotable bits, sum up the film:
“This is sick!”