There’s no way to write this review without addressing the hype that has built up around Attack the Block since it debuted at SXSW. Film can be a delicate thing, and while people hype movies because they simply want them to succeed, the weight of all that excitement can break the film for other audiences. It’s a vicious cycle that begins with discovering a movie you love that you want to get others to watch, and so you really go on and on about how great that movie is, and when others finally see the movie they can’t quite get past your glowing, effusive praise and just appreciate the film on its own merits. They suddenly become disappointed, not in the movie but in the unreasonable expectations foisted upon the movie by earlier audiences.
Well, fuck that. Attack the Block lives up to the hype and then some. It’s a perfect genre gem, a movie that works a crowd the way a great song works a crowd. Attack the Block works because it is paced beautifully, because it is written smartly and because it is shot with style and energy. Attack the Block is the kind of genre film we wait for - a movie that is thrilling and funny but also has thematic depth going on, should you be the kind of filmgoer who wants to engage with thematic depth in their aliens on a rampage film.
This is Joe Cornish’s first feature film and he has premiered big. The premise of the film is simple and yet subversive - when savage beastly aliens land in a London council estate they find that the local teenage thugs might be more than they bargained for. What’s wonderful about Attack the Block is the attitude flips the usual story on its head - rather than reacting to the alien invasion, these kids are aggressively acting, looking to bust some ETs in the grill.
Cornish works with a group of unknown young actors, and he gets incredible performances out of them. He’s brave in his approach, opening the film with these mostly black hoods mugging a white nurse. The film doesn’t make any grand excuses for this behavior, although it does throw a sharply critical eye on their environment and the societal systems in which they’re entangled, and in fact the arc of these kids is all about learning to take responsibility for their actions. At the beginning of the film the leader of this little gang, a tough named Moses, is a sinister thug and by the end of the film he’s an incredible hero.
Nostalgia rules genre cinema right now, with throwbacks and remakes and period pieces being all the rage. Cornish is certainly influenced by the same films and filmmakers who influenced his peers, but he’s filtering it through a modern lens. It’s important to remember that ET wasn’t set in Steven Spielberg’s childhood but in the very immediate world of the early 80s, a world filled with divorce and doubt. Cornish does the same with Attack the Block, taking adventure elements of classic films but putting them in the modern day, making a movie that speaks to the current moment. Attack the Block is influenced by other films - those of Spielberg, Carpenter, Dante - but it’s not ABOUT those films. It’s an important and exciting distinction.
What makes Attack the Block truly great is Cornish’s storytelling abilities. He understands cinema in a way that allows him to get across vital pieces of information quickly and without slowing things down. When the kids have a ‘tooling up’ moment before they head out to hunt aliens, they all run home quickly to get supplies. Cornish doesn’t need to have long scenes of the kid’s home lives, he simply sketches them quickly and gets the point across. He takes two minutes to deliver vital character background, which is perfect. It’s all through action, small moments, which are easily communicated to the audience. There’s no need for speeches or scenes that drag the film to a dead stop.
The film never drags to a dead stop; Attack the Block is one of the most delightfully momentum-filled movies I’ve seen in years. The action all takes place in and around one apartment block, and Cornish gives us an understanding of the layout and then proceeds to go full-throttle from there. But full-throttle doesn’t have to be one note; there are action scenes and character scenes and comedy scenes, all of which feel are carefully setting up payoffs later on. This is one of the tightest films since Shaun of the Dead, a movie whose tightness rivals Back to the Future. That’s great screenwriting, where everything matters and pays off but nothing feels forced or obvious.
And it’s fun. The action is great, and has weight. This is an R-rated movie, and not everyone makes it out alive. Cornish doesn’t go the easy route, setting up some members of the gang as disposable - they’re all great, and you feel the losses. But he juggles the tone perfectly, switching from deadly serious to completely hilarious in a moment, understanding the exact right beat needed for the audience to make that switch. That isn’t to say everybody in the film is likable. There are villains besides the aliens, one of whom meets a fate that goes in the pantheon next to Rhodes’ demise in Day of the Dead.
The movie would work no matter the design of the aliens, but the fact that the aliens are simply brilliant truly launches Attack the Block to the next level. They’re blacker than black, big furry bear gorilla things with luminescent teeth. They have no eyes, nothing except a silhouette - and those teeth. Modern creature design has become way too baroque, with FX guys looking to add veins and muscles and proper xenobiology to the creatures. The aliens in Attack the Block are 180 degrees away from that, simple but iconic. They also have a physical presence; I’m not sure how much of the creatures is CG, puppetry or guys in suits, but there’s some sort of physical presence there on set with the actors and it sells the reality of the monsters.
The final reality, though, comes from the kids. John Boyega, who plays Moses, has flat out movie star presence and charisma. He has a slomo chase at the end of the film that is one of my favorite cinematic moments in forever, and the actor sells the hell out of it. He’s surrounded by other great kids, kids who Cornish allows to slowly differentiate themselves. The accents and slang can be slightly off-putting in the first ten minutes, but after that your brain adjusts and you understand everything they’re saying - if not word for word then in the general gist. This is a film that is so visually oriented and so well acted that it’s impossible to get lost. Your grandmother could follow this movie, so don’t let any accent controversy throw you off.
Am I gushing enough? I love Attack the Block and have seen it three times. I love everything about it, from the Carpenter-esque score by Basement Jaxx to every single kid in it to the monsters to the action to the humor to the slang. It’s the kind of movie that sends you home speaking its language, saying ‘Believe bruv!’ just like the kids do. I could write a longer, more detailed review going into the smart and even-handed ways the film approaches class issues, but that can wait until folks have actually seen it. But it’s all there - a surface coating of action and adventure, a huge dose of warmth and humor, and beneath it all an undercurrent of commentary. Attack the Block is a movie that earns every one of its superlative, a movie that will send you out of the theater pumped with excitement at what genre film can be. It’s a movie that doesn’t try to imitate those Amblin films of the 80s but knows how to approximate the chemical reaction you had the first time you saw Gremlins. This isn’t just the best genre movie I’ve seen in years, it’s the best movie I’ve seen in 2011, period.
Do yourself a favor: don’t wait for home video. This is a movie meant to be seen with a big crowd that laughs and gasps and applauds. Take your friends and really experience Attack the Block in the right way.