It feels like 2011 has been the year of alien invasion films. Ranging from action (Battle: Los Angeles, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, I Am Number Four) to comedy (Paul) to horror (Apollo 18) to children (Mars Needs Moms) to super hero (Green Lantern) to summer blockbuster (Super 8) to western (Cowboys and Aliens), the science-fiction genre has vastly expanded its horizons. It’s difficult to see how one could create something original and fresh in the midst of such diversity. Attack the Block is such a film, so unique in its approach that it defies traditional categories.
It’s a British-indie-action-teen-comedy-sci-fi-B-horror film. (You could even argue it’s a romance, though that’d be stretching it.) And it’s good. Really good.
Attack the Block centers around one night of activities for a gang of teenagers in a South London neighborhood. Their “block” is really a large concrete apartment complex. It’s the entire world for these hoodlums, led by the intensely defiant Moses (young newcomer John Boyega gives a phenomenal performance in this lead role) . Riding around on their bicycles and covered in a variety of hooded sweatshirts and winter hats, they mug a young nurse (Jodie Whittaker) as she walks home to her apartment. Then an alien falls from the sky. The boys kick the tar out of the alien and take it back to the block. Bigger, scarier aliens fall from the sky and begin to terrorize the block. The boys, nurse, and various other tenants find themselves fighting for their lives.
That’s as straightforward of a premise as you’re going to get, and the story doesn’t stray from it. Writer-director Joe Cornish–a former South London resident himself–shows us this tiny microcosm of London culture as it collides with extraordinary circumstances. While they’re speaking English in the film, it feels like a completely foreign language. The script is filled with South London jargon and cultural references that take a moment to discern (e.g. getting “murked” means “killed”). Similar to The Goonies and Super 8, this is a world absent of adult influence as the gang tries to navigate their dire circumstances. The boys don’t believe they can go to the authorities for help; the cops would simply harass and arrest them. Many don’t have parents, or have parents who don’t seem to care much about the late-night activities of their children. They’re quite alone, left to fend for themselves and grow up far too quickly. Apart from Whittaker’s courageous nurse, Sam, most of the adults are either corrupt or cowardly. Sam finds herself in Moses’s apartment, noticing that one bedroom has Spiderman bedsheets. “Do you have a little brother?” she inquires. “No,” replies the stoic Moses. “How old are you?” she asks. “Fifteen.” “Huh…you look a lot older.”
The boys are extremely resourceful as they’re forced to fight through overwhelming odds. These aliens are nasty and dangerous, pitch-black with glowing-blue mouths filled with fangs. The visual effects are fantastic for an independent film, with the aliens being effectively intimidating. “This isn’t a dog, bruv. It’s a f***ing alien,” says Pest, one of the more amusing and charming characters. One becomes sympathetic for the boys, who are choosing to defend their home against an invading enemy. Yet this is a story of hope, of young leaders rising above their circumstances and eventually choosing to fight instead of run. Perhaps I’m reading too much into what is supposed to be a throwback to 1970s B-movies, but I found the plight of these boys to transcend alien invasion. They’re stuck in a block with no quality adult influence, trapped by the concrete walls and forced to live out an existence handed to them by their culture. No one expects them to be more than gang members and drug dealers, so that’s what they’ve become. Moses finds himself in handcuffs multiple times; it’s the police’s first response any time they see him, regardless of his courage. When the expectations are extremely low, the teens live up to them. When the expectations are changed, the boys rise to them, transforming from thugs to heroes. Perhaps our culture needs to change our own expectations of young people, seeing them less as incapable delinquents and more as heroes filled with enormous potential to change our world for the better. Attack the Block transcends its own filmic expectations; it transforms the cliche alien invasion movie into an entertaining and original story of hope.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1478964/