Review: Attack the Block

Thanks to Slashfilm, one of our favorite movie blogs, we had the opportunity to attend a preview screening of Attack the Block, a film that premiered at SXSW to much acclaim. Attack the Block fits within the same genre occupied by the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost “Blood & Ice Cream Trilogy,” so far comprised of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (it’s no wonder that Wright produced it and Frost is in the supporting cast). The formula is basically: genre + characters who are aware of the genre + comedy + fun. This film is director Joe Cornish’s debut (he also wrote the film), and while the direction isn’t as stylish as Wright’s, Attack the Block is a more than worthy entry in the genre. Watch the trailer here.

Warning, the rest of this review contains minor spoilers!

The plot is pretty simple, which works in the film’s favor. On Guy Fawkes Night, a teenage street gang (who are a long way down in whatever loose gang structure that exists in South London) must defend their council estate, aka “The Block” from an alien invasion. Along for the ride is Sam, a new resident to The Block, Hi-Hatz, the local gang leader, Ron, the biggest drug dealer in The Block, and Bewis, a stoner and biology expert. Also trying to join the fun are two much younger kids, who have nicknamed themselves Props and Mayhem.

We first meet the gang when they are trying to rob Sam, not knowing she is a resident of The Block. They surround her, their faces covered by bandanas, caps, and hoods, and threaten her with a knife while taking her phone, her purse, and jewelry. As Sam struggles to get away, they are interrupted by a meteorite crashing into a parked car next to them. Sam is very shaken by the incident, and goes home to call the police. Meanwhile, the gang finds a strange creature in the car, which attacks their leader, Moses. In retaliation, they hunt down and kill it. Later on, these characters cross again under very different circumstances.

Cornish makes what I think is a brave story choice in the opening scene. We go through the robbery scene from Sam’s point of view, and from that perspective the gang are bad people. Who else would rob a poor woman on the way home from work? In fact, I (and I think most of the audience) was rooting for that first alien to give those boys a taste of sweet street justice. The most impressive thing this film does in accomplish a full change in perspective. After that scene, we shift over to the boys’ perspective, and the film starts to show them for who they are: a bunch of kids from lower-income families who are caught up in a gang culture they barely seem to understand, but have accepted as their future (the latter part at least for Moses). By the end of the film, our perspective on the gang has changed from that of an outsider to that of an insider. We can always get behind underdogs defending their homes, and Cornish makes us feel just like that.

While Shaun and Hot Fuzz show us the world of the immature middle class and the insanity of small town life, respectively, Attack the Block shows us life in a public housing project in England. In broader strokes, it shows us life on the border, the one between lower and middle classes. I can’t speak to how it is in Britain, obviously, but the dynamics here remind me a lot of parts of Philadelphia, like Northern Liberties and the Northeast, where lower income and higher income are separated by mere blocks.

Specifically, it reminded me of the Sabina Rose O’Donnell murder case. The gang tells Sam they wouldn’t have robbed her if they knew she lived in The Block. But because she didn’t look like she belonged in their neighborhood (and alone), she became a target.

In the United States, neighborliness seems to be at an all-time low, with many people preferring to interact with people they’ve never met online rather than knock on their neighbor’s door. Problems like this are exacerbated in transition areas like Northern Liberties and The Block. The co-mingling is worse when class and/or race differences are added into the mix. For a horror/comedy, Attack the Block explores these issues deeply, without ever beating the audience over the head with it.

I don’t want to bring stereotypes into this, but about half the audience at the screening was African-American, which was great. I could easily see Screen Gems’ marketing this only to geek audiences, which would put it in the box office range of my beloved Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. However, the audience last night was a nice mix between the two groups (with some individuals populating the center of that Venn Diagram, no doubt), and I was glad to see both halves of the audience enjoying the film equally, despite the funny accents.*

But I digress, the film does a great job of walking the line between horror/thriller and comedy, with both sides being equally effective about putting it on par with Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland. It’s a difficult benchmark to meet, and while I doubt horror fans are going to count this among scary movies, the “jump” scenes are pretty effective while not being overly gratuitous. Also of note is the creature design, which is described in the film as “big, hairy, black gorilla wolf dog motherf******” with glowing blue teeth as the only real visible part. They are created by the “people in suits” route, and as a result are many many times more satisfying than CGI. The comedy is also well done, and the comic relief comes from almost all of the characters at one point or another, though the young duo of Props and Mayhem deserve their own spinoff.

Also of note is the score, provided by Basement Jaxx. I’m normally a fan of “house” music, preferring techno, but the score really worked for me. Cornish described the choice of Basement Jaxx being influenced by:

The works of John Carpenter, who favored using basslines over hi-hats and snares for building excitement and tension. Instead of cutting the movie to the soundtrack, another modern day trick that he decries, Attack the Block was first edited and then later had its bass heavy, thumping score added in, a technique that not only gives us a soundtrack that must be picked up, but also keeps a legitimacy to the movie’s roots.

Attack the Block doesn’t have a US release scheduled yet, but I hope it’s soon because I definitely want to see it again! I can’t recommend this film more highly, especially if you are a fan of Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland. But you know, with aliens.

*There was some talk at SXSW of adding subtitles for this film’s US release. I hope not. The movie is in English, and no one seemed to be having trouble following the story, and the comedy bits landed excellently.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Attack the Block

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