Attack the Block ***½
Quietly hyped up for several months now, horror comedy Attack the Block marks the cinematic directorial debut of comedian Joe Cornish, who many Brits may remember as one half of the comedy duo Adam and Joe whose TV sketch series, the unimaginatively titled The Adam and Joe Show, ran for four seasons from 1996 to 2001, and who has since entered the world of screenplay writing, not just writing the script for this film but also co-writing this year’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and upcoming superhero movie Ant-Man, both alongside Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz writer/director Edgar Wright, who is also an executive producer on Attack the Block – and whose frequent Wright collaborator Nira Park, whose production company Big Talk Pictures is behind this film, also gets a producing credit.
Put together in a shroud of secrecy, the anticipation for this film has not been built on the back of a humungous marketing campaign as is the case with many movies these days but rather guerrilla style, the way it was done with last year’s Monsters, and positive word of mouth has been spreading long before the film’s release in cinemas, with many already proclaiming it to be a new British comedy great alongside the likes of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the marketing being quick to associate itself with the former, stating “from the producers of Shaun of the Dead”. An appearance by Nick Frost aside, however, the film itself is not one to be directly associated with either of those films, certain comparisons being undeniable yet the film boasting a distinctly different style and an appearance by Nick Frost being all there is to directly link the films. Other than for Frost and Venus and St Trinian’s star Jodie Whittaker, the cast of Attack the Block consists mostly of unknown actors, the five leading roles being played by newcomers Simon Howard, Alex Esmail, John Boyega, Leeon Jones and Franz Drameh, out of whom only Drameh has any previous credits, the most prominent probably being that of an unnamed teenage in this year’s Clint Eastwood directed drama Hereafter.
While the principal cast members may not have much acting experience behind them, however, word of mouth ahead of the film’s release has suggested that their performances are really ones to watch out for. The latest in this year’s menagerie of alien invasion themed movies, Attack the Block is also one of only two that belongs entirely to Great Britain – the other being the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost comedy Paul, even though that one wasn’t really an alien invasion film – the film being as quintessentially British as an alien invasion movie could possibly get, the aliens here not invading a major American city for once but rather a council estate in South London and the people charged with stopping them not being trained and well armed soldiers but rather a gang of streetwise youths – who speak in street lingo and whose impenetrable dialogue has prompted speculation that the film may actually be subtitled for American audiences who might be perplexed by the accents of the characters and the way they speak. With originality being somewhat sparse in some of the recent alien invasion offerings coming out of Hollywood, this is about as fresh a take on the concept as you’re likely to find in the cinema this year. The promise for Attack the Block is great and with many of the recent big budget Hollywood alien invasion movies not having quite wowed moviegoers, there is certainly the potential for this film to really give the American filmmaking machine a run for its money. But does it really live up to the stellar word of mouth that has preceded its release or does it fall slightly short of expectations in the manner that this year’s Paul did?
Moses (John Boyega), Pest (Alex Esmail), (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones) and Biggz (Simon Howard) are five youths who are always getting into trouble in and around the council estate that they call their home, Wyndham Tower. One night, after mugging passing nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker), they witness an object crashing down from the sky nearby. Checking it out, they discover that the object is in fact a ferocious alien creature and one that they waste no time in kicking its head in. Taking the dead body of the creature back to their tower block as a sort of trophy where they show it to local drug dealer Ron (Nick Frost), they soon discover that the creature is not alone and, as an entire army of alien monsters embarks upon the block, they quickly realise that they are being hunted and decide that they themselves are going to go on the hunt to protect their home from alien invasion. As they are doing so, they once again encounter Sam, who turns out to also be a resident of the estate and becomes a reluctant companion, and are also joined by Brewis (Luke Treadaway), a stoner who has come to the building to buy weed. Unlikely help also comes in the form of Probs (Sammy Williams) and Mayhem (Michael Ajao), two young kids who are as tough and streetwise as the rest of them. “What kind of alien, out of all the places in the world, would invade some shitty council estate in South London?” says Tia (Danielle Vitalis), another block resident, to which the boys reply “One that’s looking for a fight”. As they take on not only the entire invading alien force but Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), a drug dealer they have crossed, and the police, who are out to arrest them, these five unruly youths soon find themselves becoming unlikely heroes as everybody pulls together to battle savage monsters for control of their tower block.
Given its association with Shaun of the Dead you may well go into Attack the Block with certain expectations as to the comic nature of the film. After all, it has been heavily pushed as a comedy and, considering how funny Shaun of the Dead was, you could be forgiven for expecting a similar level of laughs from this film as well. Alas, though, this film lacks the laughs and comic timing that made that film such a memorable effort. This is not to say that this is a film completely devoid of humour but it fails to be as funny as you might expect and also proves to be a very much a love it or hate it kind of viewing experience. With a lot of the humour coming from the street based dialogue, some may well find much to laugh at in the film while others won’t even giggle once. While even I must confess that I found the dialogue to be occasionally funny, I personally found myself to be mostly in the latter camp. The big problem here from the perspective of viewing the film as a comedy is simply that Joe Cornish’s script fails to be laugh out loud funny. Where the film underwhelms slightly as a comedy, however, it proves considerably more effective as a horror.
As a horror, it is efficiently scary, providing an ample amount of jump scares but also delivering plenty of unnerving scenes and employing creepy and unsettling musical tones to give itself a tense edge – while the song and music choices never betray the urban setting (from which it is highly doubtful you would ever see the clear view of the starry night sky that the film opens on) – with the urban setting making for a suitably oppressive environment for the film’s events, coming across as a place you wouldn’t want to be even without the aliens. The council estate itself, the fictional Wyndham Tower, is terrifying and unsettling enough even before the aliens show up, shots of the tower block looking from the ground up with flood lights beaming down creating an extremely menacing presence, everything about the way the film is shot creating a claustrophobic and unsafe feel, one that renders the tower as much a character as the boys or anyone else in the film are. And when the aliens do show up the setting becomes even more unnerving, the dimly (or not at all) lit corridors providing a very claustrophobic environment for the hunt while the grey unappealing and all round downtrodden appearance heightens the effect of the battle between the boys and the aliens by making it look almost like a war zone.
The fast and frenetic alien attack sequences are all the more terrifying for these grim and depressing surroundings and the alien creatures themselves, while echoing Critters on occasion, seem pretty original in their design, the low-fi approach to the CGI here proving very effective, the creatures being fairly simplistic but nonetheless terrifying. Extremely aggressive creatures that are four feet tall, blind, hairy and so black that they can just blend into the darkness with a screech that is almost blood curdling, these aliens aren’t intelligent entities but rather instinctual beasties, something that makes them all the more threatening, with them coming across as creatures that are relentless and cannot be reasoned with. While there is no explicit gore the film doesn’t shy away from showing the red stuff being spilled and the scares will all but the most hardened viewers on the edge of your seat or, if you watching the DVD at home, cowering for cover behind your sofa. The film also proves reasonably effective in terms of its action sequences which very tense and quite thrilling and very fast moving and kinetic, the characters employing all the things that you might associate with youth gangs in their battle with the aliens, from bikes and free-running to knives and fireworks.
Despite not delivering as much humour as it might, Joe Cornish’s script generally proves very effective, the well paced plot wasting no time in getting to the crux of things – no sooner have they mugged Sam than do the boys encounter the first alien with it literally crashing down upon them – and the characters being placed right at the heart of the story, not as one dimensional stereotypes but quite adequately developed personalities, each that stands apart from the rest. The first thing that the boys do in the film is mug Sam, thus establishing that they are not nice people or people to get on the wrong side of. From the outset they are established as characters who are not exactly likable and, as they take on the aliens, they are certainly more anti-heroes than heroes so it is a real testimony to Cornish that the characters are so effectively developed that by the end of the film we actually find ourselves rooting for the character, their transformations from degenerate youths to slightly more heroic individuals being believable enough.
The secondary characters aren’t as well developed here but the focus is mostly on the five boys so this does not prove to be a problem and the cast members are given quite sufficient material to work with. Boasting an extremely talented young cast, the film’s acting is generally very good, the five leads being both entirely convincing as streetwise youths and extremely entertaining as each of their individual personality quirks come through. For all the talent displayed by the five leads, however, it is Sammy Williams and Michael Ajao steal the show as two kids who themselves are every bit as tough and streetwise as the guys are. As for the other actors, Nick Frost is amusing as a drug dealer but ultimately doesn’t do a whole lot, Jodie Whittaker, as a character with a major potty mouth and understandably given everything she goes through, is good, Luke Treadaway is entertaining as a character who clearly doesn’t belong in the block and, as tough as the boys may be, Jumayn Hunter’s Hi-Hatz is a lot tougher. So, generally good but not really great, Attack the Block is not in the same league as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz but is a solid directorial debut for Joe Cornish and one that does one thing that really sets itself apart from the many other alien invasion movies – this isn’t a film about big visual effects heavy action sequences but rather a street smart alien invasion film about a more personal battle against alien aggressors and a reasonably effective one at that.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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