By Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributor
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This review contains many spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.]
Initially, Attack the Block’s brash attitude isn’t particularly attractive. The film introduces us to its young heroes, high school-age ghetto denizens that combat what only looks like an alien invasion, by highlighting their attitudes. Writer/director Joe Cornish spends the first half hour of Attack the Block making his characters look aggressively unpleasant. After mugging a woman at knife-point, they beat the first alien they encounter to death. “Welcome to London, ma’fucka,” one of them crows just before dragging that alien’s dead carcass back to the s housing project the gang calls home. After they’ve brought the body back to their place, these kids jerk the alien’s corpse around and joke about how, “it could be diseased” (“I don’t want no Chlamydia!”). Then they show it off to a drug dealer named Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). Upon seeing the alien, Hi-Hatz props the alien’s body up and puts his sunglasses on it, as if he were Bernie and this were a scifi remake of Weekend at Bernie’s (Now with black people!). And the most vexing part about this introduction is the way that later we’re supposed to think that these kids only act the way they do because in this introductory segment because they have bad role models (ie: Hi-Hatz). If only.
Thankfully, after this rocky introduction, Cornish proves to viewers that Attack the Block is not as thoughtless and condescending as he initially makes it seem. In a matter of minutes, the filmmaker’s storytelling chops rise to match his skill at baiting viewers. While the film isn’t always as clever as it is boisterous, Cornish does a decent job of disproving the vapid stereotypes and assumptions he puts in our heads.
Firstly, as you can tell from my description of the first few scenes in Attack the Block, Cornish is not apologetic about the fact that his kids have shitty priorities. More power to him for that. His adolescent protagonists aren’t just the kind of wannabe thugs that Sacha Baron Cohen poked fun of with his Ali G persona, but that kind of overweening posturing does define their lives to a point. Cornish shows us that there’s more to these kids than the way they puff out their chests, take nothing seriously save for life-threatening dilemmas, and categorically refuse to take shit from anybody. Not much more — but still, it’s enough to make them relatable, if not quite likable.
Secondly, the good thing about the circumstantial peril in Attack the Block and the effective way Cornish paces his action-comedy is that it allows him to eat his cake and have it, too. Belligerent aliens that look like pissed-off Bouvier des Flandres terriers with three rows of neon blue fangs have landed in the London projects. Watching a posse of righteously lippy, shit-kicking kids take these things from another world out is, conceptually, very appealing.
So it’s alternatively frustrating and fascinating to see Cornish test the limits of how much he can fuck with his audience. Led by Moses (John Boyega), the newest angry young black man on the block, Cornish’s gang of juvenile delinquents define themselves with thug tics. They have something to prove, which is what makes them so much more endearing to Cornish than Brewis (Luke Treadaway), a white trust fund kid who lives at home with his parents and only visits the projects to buy weed. Though Brewis proves himself useful later in the film, he is immediately the butt of Cornish’s jokes. For instance, when he declares what everyone is thinking (“Nah, man, it’s an alien invasion”), his shrill assessment is met with eye rolls from fellow pothead Ron (Shaun of the Dead’s Nick Frost). When Brewis yells “and there’s popo everywhere,” you know why Cornish chose this poor white kid’s Volvo to be the crash site for the first alien (they arrive embedded in little meteorites that crash-land en masse).
Admittedly, Cornish takes plenty of time to show us that his kids are so wet behind the ears that they don’t have the perspective to realize just how ridiculous they look. They can throw their weight around well enough (“You’d be better off calling the Ghostbusters, love”). But when things get too heavy for the group, one of them mewls, “Right now, I feel like going home and playing Fifa.” They’re young punks and Cornish even over-strains himself trying to prove that the responsibility of fighting aliens effectively sets these kids straight (“I won’t do anything bad again, I promise.”).
But they also have their reasons for acting like thugs, or at least, Moses does. Moses is the first and only member of the gang that Cornish introduces us to by name until about 50 minutes into Attack the Block, when he has the group finally sound off and tell us their individual handles. Since “actions have consequences,” as someone tells Moses later on in the film, they also have meaning, making Moses’s actions a product of poor judgment. When we first meet Moses, he’s not at all conflicted about mugging Sam (Jodie Whittaker). In fact, right after robbing her, when the first alien lands, Moses is so high on adrenaline that he clambers into the Volvo that the alien meteorite landed on and looks for something to steal. He gets a nasty scar on his face for his ill-timed display of curiosity. But that scar just makes Moses want to kill the alien. He doesn’t even know if it’s a truly hostile creature or not: he just knows it hurt him. He then beats the thing to death, with a little help from his friends. This guy is our hero, by the way.
So it comes as a bit of a surprise when Moses self-seriously tells his gang about his theory about the aliens: they were created by the government to kill ghetto residents. “We ain’t killin’ each other fast enough so now they’re speedin’ up in the process,” he intones gravely. This raging paranoia explains why Moses wants Hi-Hatz’s approval just as much as the 9 1/2 year-old Probs and Mayhem (Sammy Williams and Michael Ajao), two tiny wannabe thugs, want his approval. According to Cornish, Moses is just caught up in a vicious cycle of “Who’s the baddest one of all.”
That kind of reductive psychoanalysis is believable enough. But at the same time, it’s used to justify the film’s smarmy underlying message: middle class people, both in the film and watching it, are unwilling to try hard enough to see past these kids’ tough exteriors. Pest (Alex Esmail), one of the street urchins in question, asks Sam point-blank why her boyfriend chose to volunteer to help children in Africa when the lower-class children of England need his help just as badly. As someone who doesn’t particularly care for children of any class or ethnicity, I can’t say that that line is an especially effective provocation. Everyone lives in their own bubbles in the film, so why should the slightly-better-off be made to feel guilty for their entitled obliviousness? It’s not a unique, class-specific phenomenon and it’s certainly not the real reason why Moses’s big last stand is filmed like a bad N.E.R.D. music video, complete with cheesy slow-motion and lots of posing from Moses. (Notice that we don’t see his eyes during this scene; Cornish has transformed Moses into the superhuman badass he’s always fantasized of being, because this time he’s earned a little fetishization).
But Cornish knows that. He’s just trying to nettle his audience, not engage them in a serious sociopolitical debate, as lame an excuse as that may be. Film festival attendees have understandably responded to Attack the Block favorably because it’s a very satisfying action-comedy. Take the scene where Jerome (Leeon Jones) gets attacked by one of the aliens in a smoke-filled hallway. It’s a very moody scene, one of many that Cornish deserves serious praise for. The quality of Cornish’s brick-and-mortar storytelling makes Attack the Block an all-around better Spielberg homage than Super 8. Hell, the fact that Cornish even tries to raise issues of race and class in his film in such a mannered genre movie makes Attack the Block worth talking about. The film has swagger, and brains, too. The fact that it has too much of the former and not enough of the latter won’t stop it from being one of the best popcorn movies of the summer.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.