My initial thoughts on Attack the Block following early trailers and marketing was that the film could well be too limited in its wider appeal, thanks to the very strong regional feel, but that skepticism quickly evaporated in the presence of some serious genre credentials and painstakingly observed generic conventions, as soon as the film got into its swing. On the surface it may look like a grime-infused “Ends” opera, accessible only to those from the areas depicted in the film, but the film is also injected with a great deal of allegorical interest. Within the confines of this straight-up sci-fi thriller, there are messages of criminality, of disenfranchisement and of the hope in personal triumph.
Since its cinematic run of course, events in Britain (and the poorer areas of London) have added a weighty gravitas to the political undertones of the narrative, with the obvious ingrained feelings of disenfranchisement and alienation (it is after all a film pitting two sets of “aliens” against one another) chillingly reflected outside of the cinemas of those areas. And thanks to those initial acts of insurrection the film now carries an added weight that changes and inflames the audience’s experience of the film, and for the better I might add.
Rather than the usual action heroes, in Moses (the excellent John Boyega) the need to survive resonates on two levels: he is not only literally running away from the threat of the aliens, he is also escaping a life of crime thrust upon him by circumstance and that disenfranchisement. Tellingly, Moses and his friends see the police as an equal threat to them as the aliens, thanks to them being presumed as criminals in one of the tragic, vicious loops that incited the riots earlier this summer. So by the end, as Moses stands triumphant, his victory is both heroic in the short term and redemptive in the long-term, as it seems, briefly that there might be a better way for him and his remaining friends.
Crucially and cleverly director Joe Cornish‘s take on his characters isn’t quite monochromatic – they might be a product of their environment, but they are certainly to be taken as sinning as well as sinned against. Each of the gang is a redeemable character, despite their transgressions, but they do appear to revel in their criminality a little too much for Cornish to be saying they should be wholly sympathised with. The director even introduces a character, in the shape of Luke Treadaway‘s Brewis who aligns himself with the sub-cultures of the Block by preference, despite coming from a more affluent background, as if teasingly suggesting that such a lifestyle of drugs and liminality has its own appeal (the sense of beloning perhaps, if only for safety).
But Cornish is keen not to make this a fairytale – despite there being an alien invasion, he resists the urge to neglect reality entirely and fabricate a completely redemptive finale for Moses. So as he is lead away by the ignorant police – ignorant of his saving the world that is – it looks as if he will fall back into the destructive cycle that will no doubt propel him back to crime. Yes he is heralded as a hero by the Block, but in the eyes of the authorities he is still the same threat, which is the ultimate, oddly prophetic tragedy of the film.
Attack the Block feels a lot like the unofficial third in Edgar Wright‘s Blood and Cornettos trilogy (far more than that other pretender Paul at the very least), it deconstructs and reconstructs the genre film in the same way – though there is less self-conscious intertextuality – and at times a similar injection of humour, which obviously comes from the director’s former life as one half of Adam & Joe, and the casting of Nick Frost as the neighbourhood drug-dealer.
The wider cast is exceptional, particularly the younger members, including Boyega in his stand-out performance as Moses – plaudits must go Alex Esmail, Leeon Jones, Franz Drameh and Simon Howard for giving human faces to their street-tough kids, and for making us care about them despite their bravado and swagger. Jumayn Hunter also deserves a mention as the other villain Hi-Hatz, who shows the personified result if Moses and the boys choose to continue down the path towards a life of crime. And a good deal of praise must also go to Terry Notary – now a mo-cap legend – who gave life to The Creature in such an impressive manner that what is essentially a bundle of fur with illuminous teeth can be classed as one of the greatest screen monsters of modern times. Notary moves like an animal, moving from slowly stalking to explosively chasing in mesmerizing fashion and it is no small achievement that he has managed in Attack the Block. Final mention must go to Jodie Whittaker, given the rather unenviable task of being the only main female artist (there are a gaggle of other girls, sort of like a tougher Pink Ladies to the boys’ Grime T-Birds) who manages to be both vulnerable and by the end empowered in typical generic fashion. She could have been swallowed up in the face of the other performances – and how masculine the film is overall – but her subtle performance is one of the finest of the whole ensemble.
The soundtrack is equally phenomenal, which you might expect from anything bearing the names of UK dance music artists Basement Jaxx – ranking alongside Daft Punk’s exquisitely composed accompaniment to Tron Legacy as one of the soundtracks of the year, and offering a pulsating refrain for the action.
Broken down, Attack the Block is a perfectly phrased homage to B-Movie invasion films, shot beautifully by Thomas Townend and featuring some great performances, including exceptional debuts from members of the Junior half of the cast. It may have been comparatively cheaply made (a budget of around £13m), but in a further reflection of its timely nature, the result is the perfect answer to recession-based film-making: it is concise, artful and only explosive when it needs to be. And when it does, the action sequences and set-pieces are impressive enough to put even the most expensive recent actioners to utter shame. Likewise, the story at its centre is simple and solid, and brilliant shot composition and the manner in which director Joe Cornish has channelled the spirit of some iconic alien films (including Alien, it transpires in the commentaries) make it a triumph of pure, exhilarating film fantasy.
And it thoroughly deserves to be considered as one of the finest films of the year.
Attack the Block is a very dark film for the most part – after all it lives and dies in most of the action sequences on its ability to convincingly conjure up some atmospherics, and to hide the otherwise simple looking Creature (a fantastic decision that makes it all the more fearsome), and thankfully it doesn’t all just evaporate into one big black mess in high definition. Black levels are deep and inky, and presented in a rich hierarchy that means detail and textures can still be seen even in the darkest scenes. The sound too is well transferred, with the soundtrack bursting out of the speakers wonderfully, and the snarls and squeals of the Creatures piercing even the busiest of soundscapes.
On occasion, cheaper genre films can be let down when it comes to the high-definition transfer stage, as the tricks of the transfer rob the film of its artfully conceived concealment and the magic that makes a £13m budget look like a lot more, but thanks to the diligence that has obviously gone into shooting Attack the Block, it simply isn’t a concern here, and it looks and sounds great in high-def.
Fans of the audio commentary – like myself – will be pleased to see the inclusion of not one, but three commentary tracks. The first two are split between the junior and adult halves of the cast, which is a good call, considering how busy a full cast commentary might have been, and the third is the nerdy pleasure of director/writer Joe Cornish in conversation with Exec Producer Edgar Wright. All three are good enough to listen to multiple times, and it’s good to hear Cornish talking so well about the experience of film-making across all of the tracks. Additionally, there are a number of featurettes included, the highlights of which is the behind-the-scenes footage dedicated to the Creature and what went into bringing it and its fellow aliens to the screen and a very good general behind the scenes featurette called Behind the Block that is hilarious in parts, and equally very informative.
- Audio Commentary 1: Joe Cornish with John Boyega, Alex Esmail, Franz Drameh, Simon Howard and Leeon Jones
- Audio Commentary 2: Joe Cornish with Jodie Whittaker, Luke Treadaway and Nick Frost
- Audio Commentary 3: Joe Cornish with Edgar Wright
- Featurettes: Behind The Block, Creature Feature, Meet The Gang, Joe’s Massage, It’s A Rap, Unfilmed Action