ATTACK THE BLOCK And The Importance Of Character Work
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Attack the Block, Joe Cornish's 2011 debut feature, does a lot of things well. In addition to the excellent casting, which saw both a future lead of Doctor Who and a future lead of Star Wars among its cast, the movie's action is tense and well-shot. The alien creatures are unique and imaginative. One of the movie's biggest strengths, however, is its characterization, particularly in the case of John Boyega's Moses. Introduced as the leader of a gang that robs Jodie Whittaker's Sam, Moses ultimately grows into the hero that saves the block. But unlike other similar character arcs, Cornish manages to successfully walk the line between condoning the person while continuing to condemn his negative actions, pulling off a feat that few have been able to do.
The strongest evidence of how well the film walks this line is in the relationship between Sam and Moses. While Sam continues to get more sympathetic to Moses as the film continues, at no point does Sam let Moses and his group off the hook for violently robbing her at the beginning of the film. “Five of you and one knife against one woman? Fuck off.” she retorts to Pest's claim that they're heroes. Later, in the weed room, when Moses apologizes to Sam for robbing her, Sam maintains her condemnation, calling him out for only having sympathy for her once he discovered they resided in the same block. The fact that this comes after Sam saves Moses' life earlier in the apartment makes it all the more pointed, as Sam's refusal to forgive Moses even at this stage works excellently in condemning Moses' actions leading up to the alien invasion without condemning Moses himself. Conversely, it reminds the audience that, while Moses is a flawed individual, there are no excuses for his actions prior to the aliens landing.
The deft way Cornish thus handles Moses' characterization and interactions with others serves two functions. Most importantly, it ensures that his criminal activities are not glorified, and that they are not elevated along with him. In this way, Attack the Block avoids a pitfall many other movies and TV shows fall into when showing the heroic side of characters - condoning all their actions when condoning a person. The voices of protest against Moses' earlier actions are never silenced or delegitimized, but rather given weight. While Pest and Dennis protest Sam's criticism of Moses, for example, the film doesn't side with them, but instead adds to Sam's voice via Tia, who protests the use of a knife. By the explicit words of both Sam and Tia, Cornish makes sure that opposition to Moses' actions gets a voice, and in the case of Sam, that victims of Moses and his gang aren't forgotten. His past misdeeds are not swept under the rug, nor are they shown as an unfortunate necessity to give him the skills to fight the aliens.
Not letting Moses off the hook also serves to turn Attack the Block from a heroic tale to a redemption arc. By noting that the criminal actions are still bad, Cornish gives Moses a chance to reflect on his actions, learn from them, and take responsibility for them, particularly as others point out his mistakes and their consequences. The movie doesn't paint him as a hero just waiting for the right circumstances, but rather a flawed person who rises to the occasion when he's needed, proving that he's capable of change. By allowing him to reflect and acknowledge his prior actions, the choice he makes becomes more poignant, because it becomes a good choice made by a person who hasn't always made good choices. Were it just a story of a heroic person who'd temporarily done bad things he was forgiven for, it wouldn't resonate as strongly. As it stands, Moses makes the choice to run down the hallway with the dead alien strapped to his back not with the knowledge that he's been forgiven for his past transgressions, but with the awareness that he hasn't. Leading the aliens away himself becomes a way for Moses to atone for his past sins.
All of this ultimately improves Attack the Block. Framing Moses in this manner not only sets the movie apart from other films that have failed to characterize their leads as deftly, it also helps elevate the film by getting the audience to root for Moses' redemption, instead of simply his triumph. In addition, those who are too put off by Moses' actions prior to the alien invasion not only have their concerns validated, they have a victim of his actions in the form of Sam to root for as well. The combination of these factors only further establishes what an excellent debut film Cornish made, and is just one of the reasons Attack the Block is so enjoyable.