Science fiction has always been the medium of metaphor. During periods of social and political restrictions, sci-fi was a way to mask a writer or director’s social views behind facade of the fantastic. Writers could talk about touchy subjects like race, gender, and sexuality without getting people into a huff. No, no, these are transsexual aliens that the humans have to learn to coexist with and respect. No connection with anything in the real world (wink, wink). What? I just have something in my eye, that’s all (wink, wink, wink). The interesting thing is, for the Western world at least, we can now pretty much just say whatever we want. We don’t get arrested or blackballed anymore, just flamed on the internet. We’ve reached the point where we can drop the metaphor and say “this is a movie about racial and socioeconomic disparity, the glamour of crime, and the nebulous nature of family. Plus, there are aliens.” Take ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011), for instance.
A wannabe gangsta crew of South London youths picks a fight with a recently crashed alien monster. That first one was not so tough, but they get more than they bargained for when its much nastier mates show up looking for it. On top of that, they also have to deal with the police who think they are responsible for all the chaos, and a proper gangsta who wants them dead for bringing the cops into his territory. Cool headed Moses (John Boyega) must lead his people, now including the nurse his crew mugged earlier (Jodie Whittaker), through a locked down high-rise without being shot, arrested, or eaten. The boys (and girls) of South London are going to show the aliens that they attacked the wrong block.
Director Joe Cornish starts his modestly budgeted sci-fi story off with a cute trick. Moses and his crew of block boys are first shown as a menacing gang of criminals. Their hoods are up, their faces are masked, and their eyes are cold and intense. They confront a single white lady, threaten her with a knife, and take her most meaningful possessions. After she runs off, they joke around with each other about the crime. It’s a bold way to introduce the heroes of your movie. Sure, we find out later that they are just a bunch of kids who were just as scared about robbing someone as Sam was to be robbed (debatable, since she seems much more shaken, while they laugh it off). Later, they even apologize to Sam, saying they would never have done it if they knew she lived on the same block. They turn out to be basically good kids, but they make a threatening first impression.
Now, that’s a clever narrative, granted, but that’s not the trick. The trick is why they are so threatening. They are threatening because they are urban youths. On the one hand, duh, that’s the whole point of the movie. When I really thought about it, though, I realized how insidiously effective it was. It got me, and usually I see through that shit. I didn’t realize how much it got me until the second watch. When I saw Moses’ crew all lined up with bandanas covering their faces, I thought they almost looked like outlaws in a western. Then it struck me. Almost every spaghetti western starts with the (anti) hero doing something disreputable. It adds a layer of complexity and transgression to the character. As long as they don’t do anything too despicable, I have no problem getting behind them. A simple robbery where no one was hurt wouldn’t even have fazed me. It just shows that the main character is a bit of a scoundrel. No big deal, scoundrels are cool. Spaghetti westerns happen on the dusty streets of the Old West, though. I don’t hang out much in the Old West. Sam’s mugging happened on a dark street in the city. Scoundrels lurking in places you may actually go are suddenly a much bigger deal. Thanks to the media, I subconsciously equate hoodies and puffy jackets and masks with danger. So without realizing, I took a mental step back. These guys are serious.
Except that they are just a bunch of kids who like to read Naruto comics. It was a total manipulation, and I fell for it. I feel even worse because without their scary masks and hoodies, the kids are adorable. They talk about video games. They tease the local girls (who give it back to them just as hard). They call their mums to check in and lie about what they were doing. Most importantly, they look out for each other. Someone is always calling the other cuz, or fam, which the urban dictionary tells me is what you say when you consider someone family. It’s a tight group, and everyone obviously cares about each other. They just have really bad role models, like Hi-Hatz, the block’s resident drug kingpin. He gets to boss people around, always has money, and even records his own rap songs. The boys are so enamored—and scared—of him, they just want to impress him. The mugging was just their attempt to follow in Hi-Hatz’ gangsta footsteps. There are even a couple of younger, even more adorable kids that follow Moses’ crew around. Wannabe wannabe gangstas.
All the kids are great, but Moses is the stand out performance. Going back to the western thing, John Boyega does a great Clint Eastwood. He has an amazing physical presence, silent and commanding, but compassionate as well. His deep, soulful eyes convey the uncertainty he won’t allow himself speak aloud. He is the most mature and serious of all the block boys, forced to be old beyond his years. When Sam sees the Spider-Man sleeping bag in Moses' apartment and realizes how young he is, it's heartbreaking. It’s very fitting that Boyega was the breakout star of the movie, landing a lead role in another moderately budgeted sci-fi epic. I believe it was about an awakening of some kind. Anyway, I predict a bright future for the lad.
Jodie Whittaker also does a fantastic job as Sam, the put-upon nurse who gets pulled into this mess. She plays a good mix of terror at the situation and lingering anger at being victimized. When the boys come bursting into her apartment while fleeing the aliens, she does not hold back in telling them off, even as she helps them. It gives weight to the bond she develops with Moses. Their relationship evolves from fear, to resentment, to begrudging cooperation, to eventual understanding and admiration. By the end, when she’s sticking up for him to the cops, it feels earned.
All the boys except Moses have parents, but they barely appear in the movie. There are only quick shots of them as the boys excitedly rush to get weapons to fight off the alien invasion (before realizing how much nastier the males are). Dennis’ dad makes him take the dog with him. That wasn’t a great idea. Aside from Sam, the only bonafide adult to get a decent sized role is Ron, played by Nick Frost. He is nice to the kids and gives them a safe place to hold up, but he’s basically useless. Slightly less useless is Brewis (Luke Treadaway), the hopelessly square suburbanite who uses the word “shizzle” about a decade too late while attempting a fist bump. At least he doesn’t use the word “square”. He’s older than the block boys, but isn’t what I would call an adult. When he complains to Ron about being busted for drugs once, he’s talking about by his parents, not the police.
The aliens are basically wild animals. They reach Earth by chance, not as part of an organized invasion. They have light absorbing fur, no eyes, and a giant mouth full of iridescent lamprey like fangs. Like a fuzzy shadow with glowing teeth. Gorilla wolf motherfuckers, the boys call them. Brewis creates a speculative backstory about them, but the movie never goes into detail about the species other than they like to chow down on people and there dozens of males and only one female (sort of the reverse evolutionary flaw of the dragons from REIGN OF FIRE). It’s the female’s scent that is motivating the rest of the GWMFs. Another interesting thing I realized on my second watching was that the boys basically saved the world right in the beginning when they kill the female. Without her, the species can’t reproduce. There are only a couple of dozen males running around the block to worry about. Those cause a lot of problems, but nothing compared to what would happen if they got busy making baby mouth monsters.
The one rough thing about having a great cast is that it makes the deaths hurt all the more. No one has a problem when an annoying bunch of assholes get killed in a movie. You might even look forward to it (Hi-Hatz, for instance, or to a lesser degree, his puppet enthusiast henchman, Tonks). It’s a totally different dynamic when sympathetic characters eat it. [Spoilers coming] Even though Dennis was the hardest and most sneering member of Moses’ crew, his death was hard to take. He played tough to the end, facing down the monsters to protect his mates. When the end came, though, his façade dropped and he was just a scared kid. The worst was Jerome. He was the smartest and most sensitive one of the group. I immediately latched on to him as my surrogate into the film (though in reality, I am closer to Brewis). He’s the person I least wanted to die, so of course he’s a goner. His death scene was terrifying. The gang is fleeing through a smoke filled hallway when Jerome gets separated. He hears the GWMFs around him and gets more and more desperate. Just as he reconnects with one of his mates, the aliens pounce and pull him back into the smoke, screaming. That scene is like a knife in the stomach to me. It works wonders for the continued tension, though. If they can kill off the most sympathetic character, then no one is safe.
The ending is ludicrous, but it affords Moses a defining moment on the road to being a true hero. He takes responsibility for his actions and is willing to sacrifice his life to ensure his family and friends (and Brewis) make it out. Ultimately, he becomes a legend on the block, a role model for the kids worth looking up to.
ATTACK THE BLOCK was Joe Cornish’s first and—criminally—only film so far. He did a pass on the ANT-MAN screenplay, which retains a lot of his DNA (criminal becomes hero theme, sly humor, heart). He was considered to direct one of the HUNGER GAMES movies, A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (oh, if only), and the speculative GAMBIT movie, but didn’t get any of them. Come on, Hollywood people, throw this guy a bone. He clearly has the chops. Maybe one of those Star Warses you’re always making these days. I’m sure John Boyega would put in a good word. I’ll bet he could even do metaphors, in a pinch.