A timely tale of disenchanted youth and criminal culture set against a sci-fi genre backdrop, Attack the Block is a fresh, energetic, spectacularly original and wildly entertaining debut feature film full of wit, suspense, action, terrific characters, awesome monsters and a totally bad-ass score. Written and directed by English comedian Joe Cornish (who also co-wrote the recent Steven Spielberg directed Tintin movie), the film sees a gang of south London teenagers go head to head with savage extra-terrestrial monsters that lay siege to the council estate they call home. Thrilling and funny from start to finish, with some savvy political commentary thrown in; Attack the Block is one of the year’s smartest and most giddily enjoyable films.
Set over a single night in London, Attack the Block kicks off when a gang of teenagers consisting of Pest (Alex Esmail), Jerome (Leeon Jones), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Biggz (Simon Howard) and fifteen year old leader Moses (John Boyega) mug a young nurse named Samantha (Jodie Whitaker; St Trinian’s), only to have their crime suddently interrupted by an attack by a four foot monster clearly not of this earth. Being the hooligans that they are, the gang give chase and soon make short work of the alien, and drag its corpse back to their twenty story housing estate, appropriately nick-named “The Block”. But the night turns ugly – or rather, uglier – when more aliens start appearing; not of the four-foot variety, but gigantic wolf-life creatures with jet black fur and luminescent blue fangs.
From the get-go, Attack the Block is funny, frightening and packed to the brim with excitement. Cornish’s dialogue, an eclectic blend of gangster, pop-culture and quintessentially English slang recalls the authenticity of HBO’s The Wire, and clever barbs fly thick and fast off the tongues of the talented young cast who fit perfectly into their parts as a gang of juvenile delinquents – little wonder, since many of them, including leading man Boyega, are actual London teenagers making their feature film acting debuts. Fans of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz will get a thrill seeing Nick Frost in his small role as the Blocks’ laid back pot grower named Ron. But make no mistake: this block belongs to the youngsters.
On the action side of things, Cornish display’s a talent and confidence rarely seen in a first time director, ratcheting up the frights and the thrills every time the exceptionally designed and rather terrifying looking aliens – realized terrifically through a combination of costume and CGI – give chase. Jump scares abound, while a sequence along a dimly lit smoke filled corridor is fraught with tension. The rest of the time, chase scenes pulsate with intensity, backed by a stylish score by Steven Price and Basement Jaxx that mixes orchestral music, R&B and electro, as well as classic UFO sound effects. The violence, when it happens, is deliciously grisly.
But like all great sc-fi stories, Attack the Block uses its outlandish premise to critique and comment on real world issues, as its characters tackle racial and socio-economic politics even as the battle monsters from outer-space. The residents of the Block are predominately poor and black; its children are petty criminals, and even those as young as nine want nothing more than to grow up to be gangsters. At the same time, they are mistrusting of the police and the government whom they believe are out to persecute them, and speak their own language – one they’ve appropriated from rap and gangster culture – as a way of expressing, in their own way, their feelings of disillusionment.
Cornish is not above poking fun at figures who play at thug life; consider the character of Brewis (Luke Treadaway; Clash of the Titans), a skinny, white, perpetually stoned teenager who taps his feet along to KRS-One’s “The Sound of the Police” and awkwardly tries to converse with Moses’ gang (his use of the phrase “po-po” is one of the funniest lines in the film). At the end of the day though, his most pressing concern is what to tell his Dad after his luxury car is destroyed when the aliens first make themselves known. In contrast, the character of Moses is one of considerable tragedy. A glimpse into his dilapidated bedroom reveals the childhood that has all but been stamped out of him; the closest thing he has to an adult role model is a drug dealer. No wonder teenagers like this turn to crime: nobody expects anything more.
And yet while there is despair, there is also hope. The Block, for all its problems, is the only home these children know. It is a refuge. It is a community. And it is a place they believe is worth fighting for. For all their delinquency, these youths feel a fierce pride in their home. Their gang is a family – one that idolizes criminals, admittedly – but a family never the less. And at its head is Moses, a natural born leader who is brave, strong and willing to sacrifice himself for the people who need him. Even Sam, the women who they terrorised, comes to realise this. Along with another thing: when the aliens attack, criminals or not, these are the kids that you want in your corner.