Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Film Review: Attack the Block

If I were a nefarious alien plotting to take over the Earth I might start with a spectacular attack on an iconic landmark, something that would be psychologically devastating to those puny earthlings. While this might ordinarily be the M.O. of Hollywood's space invaders it is not of the ETs in Attack the Block, a very British sci-fi movie where creatures from outer-space attack a South London council estate.

Guy Fawkes night and the London skyline is alit with fireworks, no one noticing the strange meteorites falling to Earth through the colourful haze. Carrying a strange, feral creature, it proves to be the beginning of an eventful evening for the residents of Wyndham Tower Block.

Attack the Block is an interesting perspective on the whole alien invasion lark. Often we see how Americans might deal with such a prospect, namely blasting their way out with the latest high-tech weaponry the Air Force can muster. Somehow you can't really imagine the RAF doing the same, indeed the very notion conjuring images of gentlemen sporting fantastic moustaches taking to their Supermarine Spitfires to engage the dastardly aliens. Likewise, you wouldn't place many bets on its civilian populace given this is a country where firearms are not so readily available. So just what would the ordinary Brit do when faced with an invasion from outer space? Well, probably exactly what the kids of this fictional South London tower block would who arm themselves with anything that comes to hand. Baseball bats (oh, the irony), ornamental samurai swords and fireworks are just a few of the items in our tower block defence force's armoury, forced to improvise when a .50 Cal isn't on hand. Indeed, it is something which adds to Attack the Block's effusive British charm, an element which distinguishes the nation's quaint idiosyncrasies to those of our whooping, gun-totting brethren across the pond.

But Attack the Block is also more than just a science fiction siege movie, quite blatantly wading into the realms of social commentary. The opening scene where we are introduced to our unlikely heros is actually quite disquieting as defenceless young nurse, Sam (Whittaker), is robbed by the quintessential Daily Mail caricature of evil hooded little bastards skulking in darkened alleyways waiting to pounce. That we should even begin to sympathise with these wretched yoofs when they're forced to defend their tower block against an alien onslaught is even more jarring. And this vicious sadism isn't even the end of it as gang ringleader, Moses (Boyega), hunts down and murders the first sentient alien life form that humans  come into contact with. Welcome to Earth indeed! This isn't behaviour that's easy to reconcile with and yet, these are the characters we as the audience are expected to root for. My initial thought was to hope these little cunts would all die horrible deaths as some sort of comeuppance, but director and writer Joe Cornish does something astonishing. He manages to transform them from villains to, well, let's say anti-heros. Indeed, it is a bizarre transition, probably given extra credence when their victim is forced to team up with them due to the extraneous circumstances. Likewise, the human desire to categorize, group and attack anything foreign to their reality also plays a role as sympathies shift at the expense of another species who just seem a whole lot nastier. Cornish's beguiling magic trick here is to make us identify with our own species, even if they can be a little shitty.

Depending on one's politics some may chastise this film purely on the basis of the traumatic mugging scene early on and the fact that we're then supposed to endure and accept the perpetrators without giving it a second thought. Rightly, it's a horrific moment and there is a case to be made that it is quickly skirted over and that Cornish's attempts to recast them as decent, misunderstood kids on the whole is rather abrasive. However, as the film goes on we learn that these are just bored, impoverished kids living on the outskirts of society. That is not to justify previous events, but to paraphrase an old adage that springs to mind here, "a society is only as good as it treats its most vulnerable". Likewise, as we learn a bit more about Moses' situation you can begin to understand his behaviour on some level. And there is a moral to be learnt where right at the end he manages to vindicate himself by taking responsibility for his actions when he finally realises that they do have consequence. This might be a little too complicated for Daily Mail reactionaries to understand, but the best thing about Cornish's social commentary is that it never lingers on the kid's deprivation, which so easily could have made Attack the Block horribly overwrought.

What's most remarkable about Attack the Block are the performances of these relative newcomers. Cornish apparently spent some time researching South London youth culture and it shows in the authentic manner in which they talk and act. And it works in a way where you might expect them to behave this way if these events were real. Admittedly, if you have no clue as to British patois you could be forgiven for wanting subtitles, but through a repetition of a few phrases and within the context of events, it soon becomes quick to decode. Blud. As such, and I say this cautiously given their earlier misdemeanour, the gang display a, shall we say, 'unique' air of charisma in a strangely appealing fashion. Luke Treadway's Brewis, a middle-class pot-smoking dickhead buddies up with the film's most senior actor, Nick Frost to provide most of the lols. And while there are funnies in Attack the Block, it actually gets darker the longer it goes on as unexpected character deaths at the hands of the aliens keep things surprisingly sombre. The aliens themselves resemble something like an Alien xenomorph in a wooly coat with luminescent teeth, or as one kid describes them, "hairy gorilla werewolf motherfuckers". They're effective enough, but look closer and in some scenes you can merely see a man in a suit.

Attack the Block probably won't be to everyone's taste as Cornish's politics will prove to be the most dividing factor. However, chilling mugging and debatable justifications aside, this is a solid effort from the debutante director. Attack the Block is effusive, energetic and altogether charming in that British kind of way. If there was every any doubt over just how British this film is, you certainly won't question the many easter eggs dotted about such as streets named 'Moore' and 'Huxley' and the tower block named after Day of the Triffids author, John Wyndham. And just to emphasise its roots, Moses is pictured right at the end hanging off the tower block from a Union Jack, as if Bond had fucked up his parachute.