It's aliens vs. hoodies in Joe Cornish's urban sci-fi debut Attack The Block (2011)
With films like Eden Lake (Watkins, 2008), F (Roberts, 2010) and Ils (Moreau, Palud, 2006), not to mention tabloid fear mongering and headline hyperbole, hoodies (or 'chavs' as they're colloquially known) have garnered something of an ill reputation in the UK. Good-for-nothing criminals is the media manufactured cliché, but first-time filmmaker Joe Cornish knows better. Attack The Block does engage with social issues, but it is not social commentary. If anything it's a reactionary piece, as Cornish was encouraged to write the script after being mugged by a group of youths in London. The film opens with nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) being mugged by our protagonists but soon the threatening incident is interrupted by a bright light in the sky, followed by the arrival of some "big alien gorilla-wolf motherfuckers", and the film evolves into sci-fi in the classic 80's mould.
Rather than being angry with the youths who attacked him, Cornish formed a focus group of troubled teenagers and got to the roots of their disparate aggression. His research was not compiled into an academic essay but rather a screenplay, harking back to the beloved films he grew up on - The Goonies (Donner, 1985), Gremlins (Dante, 1984) and most importantly the cinema of John Carpenter. The way he frames the quasi-futuristic South London tower blocks recalls spacecraft from the likes of Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) or Alien (Scott, 1979), and the hoodies self-developed language (trust, blud, shizzle, innit, believe) is surely what Klingon would have sounded like had it been developed on a rundown council estate. The setup is pure Assault On Precinct 13 (Carpenter, 1976), right down to the electronic score, yet Attack The Block feels refreshingly original - certainly enough to quash the hollow comparisons to Edgar Wright's Shaun Of The Dead (2004).
Admittedly it's hard to warm to the gang once they've mugged Sam, but that wasn't my central problem with the film. Attack The Block actually relates to the work of John Carpenter in more ways than one - many of Carpenter's films took place over one night, confined to one location, and were fundamentally about forces of good fighting forces of evil. But the lines here are blurred, as we're never told the origin or intention of our furry antagonists (whose strikingly original design and neon gnashers are the highlight of the film) and the 'good guys' are introduced to us in a scene of confrontational violence which is quite difficult to engage with (certainly it's a brave move on the part of Cornish). There's an attempt to label the gang as victims of a warped society, at one point tackled in a tongue-in-cheek manner when crew leader Moses (John Boyega) theorizes that the monsters were engineered by the government with the specific intent of wiping out the black population, who aren't killing themselves fast enough with the drugs and guns also implemented into lower class environments. Like I said though, the film isn't social commentary, and that's all executed in jovial sci-fi fashion, leaving the true dramatics to Whittaker, who turns in a confident and emotionally compelling performance as Sam, clearly damaged and upset by her encounter with the hoods.
But back to that Carpenter comparison. The reason Attack The Block ultimately falls short for me is because its ideas and action sequences are nowhere near as developed as in a film like, for example, Assault On Precinct 13, and it all gets very tiring very fast. There's no real variety to the film, as we go from the block to the streets, block to the streets and repeat. A set piece involving a smoke filled corridor (the gang's primary weapon is a bagful of fireworks) creates tension and suitably evokes dread, and certainly there are some nice twists along the way, but I don't think Cornish is developed enough as a filmmaker to inject that shot of adrenaline into the film which it really needs; its environments, as interesting as they are within the mould of science fiction, just become a little stale, and I felt like the film would have been better retitled and reformed as Escape The Block. At least then I'd have seen more than the same street corner every five minutes, and the slick 90-minute running time might have been accommodated with some set-pieces to warrant that length. All the same, Attack The Block is a slick and visually compelling genre exercise, occasionally fun and heralding great things to come from its director... certainly one to keep your eye on.