Bennett here, taking a break from growing my magical Freddie Mercury mustache.
Ever watch something and you’re all, What the—this is … wow. Yeah man.
And then your buddy’s like, Oh man, this is, I don’t even know.
And then you’re like, Damn bro, yeah. That’s right. It’s crazy how right you are.
This is pretty much what it’s like watching Attack the Block, the excellent British import from the makers of such tense, dramatic films as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and (the incredibly overrated) Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
Attack the Block offers a fresh take on the alien invasion story, centering on a small gang of teenage muggers from a council estate (the British equivalent of American public housing projects) and their misadventures surviving alien invaders of the very cool, very violent (redundant, I know), very furry and cuddly sort. Added to the tension is the fact that, after quite a bit of maneuvering, the filmmakers manage to get one of their mugging victims to accompany the gang. Armed with quick wits, charming British accents, fireworks, and various household items, this motley crew kicks, claws, and curses their way through the neighborhood, searching for a safe refuge that doesn’t seem likely to exist. And let’s face it: even if it did exist, these street urchins probably wouldn’t be allowed in. Lives are lost, marijuana is consumed, the inner goodness of the youths shines through, and by the end, lessons are learned and the boys have come of age. Well, if they’ve survived to the end. And killing children in films is always badass—not that I’m saying that anything of the sort happens here (but it does). Don’t look at me like that; I could have killed John Matrix’s daughter if I wanted.
The film seems to be simple enough on the surface: it appeals to us with its comedic elements, and offers just enough complexity in its characters to make them not only compelling, but deserving of our time, attention, and sympathies. It’s amazing, really, that we care so much about them. After all, the first scene presents the boys, mostly black, led by Moses (John Boyega), mugging Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a nice, white, friendly nurse on her way home from work. It’s a hard pill to swallow, watching the lads terrorize her, coloring the scene with racial undercurrents. The concept, while overdone to a certain degree, effectively forces the viewer to confront his or her own prejudices and stereotypes, thus coloring the film with a distinct, social undertones.
Attack the Block continues as Moses and his gang of rapscallions attack an alien, and after killing it, set in motion the events of their night. What can be described as a simple, in-your-face film about an alien invasion takes on a whole new layer of social commentary. For instance, the main theme of Attack the Block, and Moses’s story arc, is one of responsibility—taking responsibility, and how it relates to a person’s maturity. Ultimately, it seems to say, we come of age and find our place in the world by accepting the consequences of our actions. Filtered through a lens of alienation—it’s not just metaphorical here: there’s a fucking alien invasion going on—and projected onto the larger society, the filmmakers address the issue of disenfranchisement in the ghettos, of oppression, and the systemic, cyclic nature of creating street crime.
The lads come from broken homes for the most part, and their families clearly belong to the lower, working class. There are no scenes of overt police brutality or oppression, though the boys do talk about it explicitly at a few points in the latter part of the film; because of the timing of such comments, and the simple fact that the kids and Sam are trying to save themselves, these social observations come across as out of place and forced. The film would have done itself a lot of good if it had shown a bit—not necessarily as a focus, maybe as an aside, or a background detail—of some of the conflicts between system (police, government, society) and the residents of the Block. Regardless, since the film makes the issues explicit, it on some level blames larger forces for the boys’ behavior.
Beyond that, the filmmakers use the boys as proxies for society as they filter the aliens as the Other, a role usually attributed to the boys themselves by society. And how do the boys react to the Other? They kick the shit out of it and kill it. And then spend the rest of the film fearing the Other, running from it, killing it when they can. They only find resolution and peace when they actually take the time to understand the aliens, when they step outside of themselves and look at things from another perspective. The perspective, interestingly, is informed by watching the nature channel—implying that they see the Other as animals, not a coincidence that Blacks themselves have so often been demonized or dehumanized to such a degree. Of course, the incredibly Hollywood finish (which I’ll return to later) focuses on the destruction of the Other, and renders the entire examination of alienation and Society vs. The Other as moot, because we would certainly not (consciously) attempt to annihilate the Other, much less cheer it on, right? I mean, that’s crazy.
Attack the Block is a kick ass romp through the ghetto and succeeds due in great part to its personal approach of focusing on a very small group that is alienated by what should be a very large event, and its participation in societal discourse regarding race, ethnicity, and poverty. The actors are a delight to watch as their comedic timing and snarky dialogue are not only catchy, but witty as all hell. But, unlike a film such as Napoleon Dynamite which relies too heavily on characters and dialogue, Attack the Block never loses sight of its storytelling. The tension mounts as the night progresses, giving us only brief moments to breathe as we visit a marijuana growing den, and watch Moses get promoted in a drug-dealing organization. Because there are so many things going on, the film does risk letting all the elements tumble; however, the filmmakers skillfully connect the themes, weaving everything into an elegant picture of growing up poor, black and in the inner city in London, all under the guise of an alien invasion. And when we hit the climax, we relate it to all the other elements, all the other bullshit in these kids’ lives, even if, on the surface, they don’t seem to have anything to do with one another. It’s lovely, if a little neat.
Which brings us to the ending. Come on down, Hollywood. You’ve done it again. The kids have achieved agency in their ability to save the world of the Block, their lives, and have changed things for the better. Giving characters the power to change lives, setting things directly at the feet of personal accountability, etc., etc., is all fine and good, and frankly, I like the fact that Moses navigates his way to adulthood, but, as is so often the case, it implies some sort of finality, a sense that everything’s done. That all the bullshit has been worked through, and it’s smooth sailing from here on out. Of course, there is a small gesture that the greater societal forces are still out to get them, but it’s certainly not a meaningful gesture, and not one that concerns the viewers. What we’re left with is triumph and cheering. Sure, overall, the ending works for the audience, because the audience is there for an emotional journey that is both passive and simplistic. We’re certainly not watching a Sci-Fi/Action/Comedy/Horror for realism or grittiness. But since the film has set up so much social commentary, you’d think that it could readdress these things on a deeper level. It's kind of incredible that a film like Super 8 failed miserably because it did not give its child-protagonists agency, which was the goal of the films Super 8 paid homage to; whereas a film like Attack the Block succeeds despite giving its characters agency. I suppose that's one of the problems with creating a film that encompasses real world situations (alien invasion not included, obviously) and partakes in social commentary: you expect more realism. How odd.
The performances are, across the board, phenomenal. Boyega, who was seventeen when filming began on Attack the Block, does an amazing, intense job. For someone so young, he handles the role with fantastic poise; and talk about presence—he’s definitely someone to watch out for. For a comedic film, it’s interesting that the lead male has no comedic moments, just straight business. All the other lads do a great job and add to the chemistry quite nicely. But Pest, played by Alex Esmail, handles the bulk of the straight-up comedic duties easily and with a confidence that is certainly well ahead of this young actor’s time. Nick Frost, of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead fame isn’t given much to do, but he does extraordinarily well with what he has. He turns a role of a drug dealer/bodyguard/whatever into an unforgettable part. Though it may just be his fame that makes us remember him. Hi-Hatz, the local drug boss, played by Jumayn Hunter is a scene stealer and eschews slapstick in favor of sheer, hilarious satire. He’s fucking awesome. I could watch a whole movie with this guy, though I’m sure he works better as a smaller side character. He smirks, he growls, he threatens, he megalomaniacizes, and it’s all so great to watch.
Of course, it could just be their British accents which have fooled me into thinking them being better actors than they are. It’s a slippery slope when critiquing British films. Either way, this is a hilarious film, fraught with excellent action and violence. Attack the Block opens in wide release on Friday. Do yourselves a favor and be there for it! As for me, I’d gladly watch this again. No steel pipe through the sternum, thanks.