There is something brazenly combative about the way that Attack the Block, the first film by director/writer Joe Cornish, begins. An innocent night sky is almost immediately marred by the arrival of some divine object, possibly a meteorite, which blasts its way across the frame. As it plummets to Earth, it is revealed not to be the lone blazing light in the night’s sky. Fireworks shoot up, as if in almost direct opposition to the heavenly object that hurtles towards its inevitable collision with Earth.
Attack the Block instantly evokes such 80s greats as Aliens and John Carpenter’s The Thing with its opening, but what makes it unique is its setting. In this case the setting is a South London “block,” an inner-city housing project, whose tenants aren’t looking to befriend an extraterrestrial life-form more than they are looking to beat the life out of it.
Attack the Block follows a local teen gang, led by Moses (newcomer John Boyega), on their nightly rounds. The gang gets its kicks from terrorizing young women who dare to come too close to their block. When they surround and mug Sam (Jodie Whittaker: Good), a young woman new to their apartment building, something unexpected happens. That object blasting through the night sky from earlier crashes right into a nearby car, allowing Sam to escape and providing the gang a new subject to their cruelty.
That subject turns out to be a tiny alien. These kids have seen enough movies to know the drill, this is just one single life-form best eradicated immediately. They react in the same way that they have treated their victims around the block; they terrorize the creature and then kill it. However, what they don’t know is that killing this creature triggers a retaliation in the form of several dozen other larger creatures currently headed towards Earth.
The motifs of Attack the Block make it almost okay that the film follows characters that are nearly impossible to sympathize with. The film is really about these characters getting handed a taste of their own medicine and what they take away from that experience.
As the alien invasion continues the boys are forced off the streets, where they exist as a force of adult terror, and back into the confines of their block, where they are still treated and loved as children. The brief glimpses that we see into the family lives of these kids are well crafted and provide just enough of a context to begin to develop an idea of who these kids actually are.
All of the children are played by unknown actors, a wise decision, who steal the show from any of the named actors that appear here. Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, the producer of this film) appears as a low-level drug dealer and while he provides some comic relief he has absolutely nothing on any of these kids. At the best of times they are able to capture a very uniquely 80’s style to the dialogue that would feel right at home in a film like The Goonies.
Each of the characters is incredibly well-defined with distinct backgrounds, speech patterns, and mannerisms. Director Joe Cornish obviously spent a great deal of time differentiating each of these young-adults; Alex Esmail’s fireworks-loving Pest comes off the best. However, the film’s run-time is relatively short, at 88 minutes, and they go mostly underdeveloped. At the end of the film we are meant to buy into a dramatic change in one of the main characters and it doesn’t quite hit, almost rendering the ending mute. With an additional 20 minutes, Attack the Block could have fully developed all of its characters and in the process increased the audience’s fear of the threat that looms over the boys’ heads.
The absolute best thing about Attack the Block is its creatures. In this day and age where computer effects can create any imaginable alien monster it is hard to create something unique that hasn’t been done before. There really haven’t been any really great alien monsters since way back when Alien and Predator were released. Attack the Block manages to add another impressive monster to the world of horror cinema. Described as “gorilla wolves” these aliens are pitch black in color with bright glow-in-the-dark fangs and no eyes. They are incredibly stylistic and just a blast to watch in action.
As the kids battle their way through the block, a building designed with a hopeful eye to the future, an incredibly kinetic score by Steven Price accompanies them. The heavy use of synthesizer is another callback to the horror-movie scores of the 80s. As the camera slowly tilts and pans through the vacant hallways and façade of the stolid apartment building, the music acts almost as an artificial heartbeat to the environment.
The one big problem with Attack the Block is that although all of the elements are designed and set in the right motion it always feels a bit tame. The film never follows up on any of the ideas it puts forth. There are just enough jokes to make the film a satire, but not enough to support the final act. It always seems as if Attack the Block is on the verge of doing something incredibly stylistic and cool, in a way that only indie filmmaking can do, but never quite takes the jump. With so many individual elements that are stylistically unique and striking it’s a shame that it never comes together to provide a moment to truly “wow” its audience.
Really, Attack the Block is a love-letter to 80s cinema, for all the good and bad. The characters are a pleasure to follow and the creature design provides some truly exciting thrills. However, it never blasts off into space as the cult film that it is really trying to be. With a bit more time and experimentation Attack the Block could have delivered on its ending with an emotional and truly exciting climax. Instead, Attack the Block is a fun and unique film that offers up some exciting ideas but never fully delivers on them.