A curious mixture of The Goonies and War of the Worlds filtered through Assault on Precinct 13, Attack the Block is not exactly a typical alien invasion movie. Rather, this directorial debut for Joe Cornish is a more playful motion picture concerned with a bunch of British youths and stoners armed with whatever makeshift weapons they can find. An English production through-and-through (the British slang is thick as fog), the picture shares the same producers as the acclaimed Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (and the director of both, Edgar Wright, executive produced). But while this connection is the focal point of the advertising, Attack the Block was predominately made by talented unknowns. On top of this being Cornish’s first feature as director, the film was photographed and scored by first-timers, and it stars a handful of first-time actors. Despite this, the entire production feels amazingly veteran, and it seems unbelievable to consider that most of the creative team were motion picture virgins.
It’s Guy Fawkes Night in South London, and nearby residents are shooting off fireworks as part of the celebrations. During her lonesome walk home, twenty-something nurse Sam (Whittaker) is terrorised and mugged by a juvenile street gang led by young Moses (Boyega). Afterwards, Moses and the boys are startled when an alien pod crash-lands in the street and begets a strange beast. Feeling defensive about their neighbourhood, the teens promptly slaughter the alien life-form. But further trouble emerges when more alien visitors begin bombarding the local streets, forcing the troublemakers into action. After seeking shelter in Sam’s flat momentarily, the kids team up with their former victim as the invaders from outer space advance on the apartment complex.
Attack the Block is vehemently an antihero story – save for Sam and an educated stoner (Treadaway), the characters are mostly repellent. Successfully pulling off such a story requires a deft hand, but Cornish unfortunately falls short. While it’s laudable to try and put teenage British hooligans in a sympathetic light, the characters lack depth – they’re scarcely developed past surface-level caricatures. If there was something else to these characters apart from them having the occasional heroic instincts, it’d be okay. As it is, the script lacks something enticing to turn the unredeemable ruffians into agreeable antiheroes. It feels wrong for Cornish to ask us to like and root for these characters, which in turn compromises the fun to an extent. It’s not a good sign if you want the aliens to kill the main characters because you want to see these bastards get their comeuppance. Heck, one could easily be fooled into thinking that these streetwise punks will all be killed in the first scene to introduce the aliens and demonstrate the aliens’ abilities.
The protagonists may be unlikeable, but Attack the Block is a technically proficient motion picture; handsomely photographed and competently directed. The alien design is ultra cool (they’re pure black with glowing teeth), and they were brought to life through an almost seamless mix of CGI and practical effects. There are plenty of terrific action beats as well, which pit the violent youths against the otherworldly beasts. Indeed, this is a polished little movie despite its modest budget. For the most part, Cornish also managed to navigate the tonal changes remarkably well, as Attack the Block veers between comedic and genuinely sinister. At times the graphic violence threatens to overwhelm the humour, but it’s no real biggie since the film still scores huge laughs.
Despite their inexperience, the ensemble cast is uniformly strong. Though his role is one of the most unlikeable characters in the film, John Boyega is excellent as the conflicted young Moses. Young actors oftentimes sound too contrived (Taylor Lautner, anyone?), but Boyega truly shines with a performance that never seems false or forced. As Moses’ friends, Alex Esmail, Leeon Jones, Frank Drameh and Simon Howard share a good camaraderie, and their bickering and bantering is at times quite amusing. Then there’s Jodie Whittaker, who threatens the steal the picture with an earthly, beguiling performance as Sam. The funniest performance in the movie, of course, is courtesy of Nick Frost, though his screen time is disappointingly low. (It’s a shame that Simon Pegg didn’t make a cameo…) And finally, there’s an amiable Luke Treadaway as a stoner who provides comic relief alongside Frost. Apparently the performers’ thick British accents and the abundance of peculiar slang caused Screen Gems (the film’s American distributor) to panic, and reportedly considered subtitling the film for its stateside release. Though the dialogue can be tough to comprehend, it’s not much of a distraction because the film is not difficult to follow and it possesses such a lively energy that you won’t worry about the occasional incomprehensible throwaway line.
After several preview screenings, Attack the Block was heavily hyped in some corners, so it’s a bit of a shame that the film fails to live up to its full potential. Still, in spite of its flaws, Attack the Block is for the most part entertaining and unique, especially in the shadow of the painfully generic alien invasion film Battle: Los Angeles. It doesn’t redefine the alien invasion subgenre, but it’s a solid enough entry in a highly saturated market.