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Film Review: Attack the Block

Attack the Block (2011; Directed by Joe Cornish)

Attack the Block is a quick, dirty, smash-and-grab alien invasion movie with a difference: the human protagonists represent the feared and demonized Other as much as the aliens do. These protagonists are introduced as apparent antagonists: five urban youths in hoodies with scarves over their faces mug a young woman (Jodie Whittaker) as she walks home from work at night in South London. It’s a tableau straight out of the feverishly disseminated nightmares of Britain’s right-wing tabloids, that spectre of a rising social tide of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrant crime flowing direct from Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood.

But the robbery doesn’t resolve as anyone would expect it to, as the criminal act is interrupted by the fiery explosion of a nearby car. As the woman flees, the youths approach the flaming automobile husk, from which escapes a small, hairless, sharp-toothed creature that scratches the face of the group’s ringleader, Moses (John Boyega). As a product of the hardscrabble, low-income council estates in Brixton, Moses has learned to reply to such disrespect with retributive violence. He and his fellows corner the creature in a shed and he beats it to death. No gentle kindly boy is this Moses (though he may be a savior, after all).

They return to the estate where they live (“the block”) in boastful triumph, trying to impress some girls with their hunting trophy and hauling it up to drug kingpin Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) on the top floor to store it until they can identify and maybe cash in on it. But this creature is not the only one of its kind, and more follow it to earth in similar meteorite space pods, the bright flashes of their arrivals disguised by the constant fireworks of Guy Fawkes Night.

No hairless, defenceless “Gollums” are these new visitors; they’re pitch-black-furred beasts with a mouthful of razor-sharp bioluminescent teeth. These “gorilla-wolf motherfuckers”, as Moses’ mouthy sidekick Pest (Alex Esmail) describes them, lay bloody waste to two policemen who bust Moses for the mugging, rip apart Hi Hatz’s armed muscle, and pursue Moses and his crew with single-minded predatory zeal. Whatever his unsympathetic narrative origins, Moses is thrust into the hero’s role, and he and his friends must use brawn and brains to free themselves and the block from the alien menace.

Attack the Block is the directorial debut of Joe Cornish, a British entertainment jack-of-all-trades who co-wrote the recent Tintin movie with Edgar Wright and Steven Moffat and often pops up in the orbit of Wright’s own films (which, like this one, came out of the Big Talk Productions stable). It’s got a harder edge than Wright’s detached hipster genre satires (and its alien invasion subject definitely steals a march from Wright’s The World’s End, which is on the same theme), with a strong sense of place and a very particular South London dialect of “bruv”s and “blood”s and pop cultural references whose denotations take a few scenes to become more lucid.

It’s also almost perversely brief, a furious series of action sequences, rough humour, and socioeconomic snapshots. Cornish never quite allows it to stop moving long enough to come into its own as a social critique, and the scale of its action and its political commentary strains to surpass the micro but is blocked from the macro by obvious budget constraints. Cornish does quite well in the face of these limitations, peppering the screen with mercurial movement and iconic hero poses for the laconic Moses (Boyega is a compelling presence). The supporting cast is made up of engaging performers, among them the chattery skinny-boy Esmail and Whittaker, a nurse who falls in with her muggers when an alien injures Pest and they drag him to her aid. Frequent Wright collaborator Nick Frost even shows up as the perma-stoned doyen of Hi Hatz’s stash, Ron’s Weed Room (“It’s a room full of weed, and it’s Ron’s”).

Attack the Block boasts many elements of genre interest (the aliens are pretty freaky and neatly designed), but its political commentary proves to be more obscure. There’s certainly an obvious play on the meanings of “alien”, pitting the sci-fi implication against the sociological one. The xenophobic tendencies in British society that confine the residents of the ethnically-diverse estates to an outsider’s role in the life of the country could be understood as being discursively analogous to that of extraterrestrial intruders. Most of the block residents are black, as is the fur of the aliens (blacker than black, reflecting no light). Their deadly battle-royale with each other is confined to the estates, more contained immigrant-on-immigrant violence to shock the fretful wealthy bourgeoisie of modern Britain as well as to confirm their snobbish prejudices about the savagery and degeneration of the urban poor.

The screenplay’s allusiveness to the Biblical leader of the Exodus as well as to the Catholic rebel terrorist Guy Fawkes aligns the struggle of the characters of Attack the Block with historical discrimination of marginalized minorities. Tellingly, the references of the main character’s name and the night of the events point to instances of these marginalized parties rising up against their oppressors. There’s little of that in the film’s plot itself, beyond the familiar ghetto distrust of the police and of snitches; Moses and his friends violently resist the hostile incursion of a new Other, after all. Cornish quite deliberately suggests, however, that the boys’ unsavoury criminal actions early in the film are a result of the economic deprivation of their surroundings, a liberal canard of long standing. But he also lets his film be very clear that, whatever the sociological justifications for criminality, personal actions have personal consequences, and the hard life of the urban poor may leave them better prepared for acts of physical courage and defensive violence in a crisis than the more comfortable classes.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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