Looking Back At ATTACK THE BLOCK - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Don’t be fooled cos we’re talking Britbox,
Tony’s still Tony from the block…

It’s a standard Bonfire Night in South London. (For the non-British, Bonfire Night is an annual commemoration of the execution of an anti-royalist in 1606, still celebrated annually in the UK by burning him in effigy. In the 21st century. Can we say ‘Touchy much’?).

A gang of young men mug a woman walking alone.

That’s… about as far as you get into Attack The Block before the world goes totally tonto. Strap in, everybody, the aliens are landing… and they’re focusing on South London.

That’s the premise of Joe Cornish’s directorial debut.

In the first place, it’s a glorious science fiction conceit, somewhere between the trick pulled by HG Wells, John Wyndham and the like, having monumental science fictional events start in unlikely places, and the Hollywood preference for having its aliens blow the ever-loving hell out of major monuments.

South London is, on the one hand, part of a major international city, but the world of ‘the block’ is far removed from the traditional ideas of power and influence. It’s a kind of gang hegemony, with different, more localized agenda and power structures. As such it feels oddly isolated from the world outside, and the forces of state power – the police, the army – more threatening than helpful when faced with invaders from outer space.

In the second place, it’s a great way to make a low-ish budget science fiction movie that felt modern and relevant in 2011, and sadly still feels pretty relevant a decade on. (Yes, you do the maths – it’s already a whole decade since 2011), slamming South London gang culture into an alien invasion plot. That’s both appealing in terms of representing cultures that don’t often get the big-screen treatment, and pretty funny at the same time. Aliens may land expecting hardcore American military resistance, but they never expect a South London gang (with all the argument, violence, off-kilter humour, and mad neighbourhood pride that entails) to put up any kind of resistance.
The cast is full of names which a decade ago were either new or new-adjacent, with Nick Frost probably the most instantly recognisable draw as a weed dealer. But Jodie Whittaker’s here as nurse Samantha Adams (she who gets mugged by the gang early on in the film), and John Boyega kickstarts his film career right here with an intense portrayal of a South London kid with more weight on his shoulders than is healthy. As Moses, leader of the rag-tag sub-gang which is the main focus of our attention, he’s 15, but (as Samantha points out to him), ‘looks older.’ He also combines that whole ‘weight of command’ deal with an insecurity about going up in the South London underworld, graduating during the film to potential cocaine distribution, seemingly somewhat against his will.

He initially mugs Sam at knifepoint, simply because she’s an easy shakedown, but later acknowledges that if he’d known she lived in the same block as him, he wouldn’t have done so.

“Oh, and if I’d lived somewhere else, that would have made it alright, would it?” demands Sam.

The point is somewhat inverted by the end of the movie, with (let’s not beat around the bush here) white woman Sam given a perfect opportunity to go Full Karen, but instead having learned that the people arrested by the police include “my neighbours. I know them…”


Welll, you don’t fight off a full-on alien invasion without breaking eggs. And police cars. And a fairly impressive amount of tower block. So there’s criminal damage to take into account, but there are also a fair number of dead bodies. Joe Cornish spares us little in terms of throat-ripping violence in this movie, but he also directs his alien threat with a significant aplomb. Where there are shots that can be improved by shadow, he’ll take them. Where there’s a convenient mist for his aliens to burst out of, they’ll be bursting.
But he’s also not particularly shy about showing his aliens off. Which makes it pleasing that, for a low-ish budget Brit-film, the aliens are more than reasonably impressive, even a decade on. With bodies like some kind of bear/ape combo, they shamble, but they do it fast, and they also underline the ape similarity by displaying some serious agility – jumping down large gaps unharmed, and displaying a mini-Kong aptitude for climbing up the front of buildings. Cornish pulls a neat trick with his aliens too, making it their seemingly steel-teethed mouths that glow in the dark, rather than their eyes (as per endless alien invasion movies), so you get both the unnerving advance knowledge that they’re there, coupled with the Alien-style focus of your attention on their mouths. It’s a device used for both jump scares and long-game ‘It’s behind you!’ sickeners, and it’s a device that adds to both the uniqueness of Attack The Block’s aliens and to its appeal as a movie overall.

There’s perfectly good escalation here too – when the first alien arrives, it’s alone, and after making a mess of Moses’ face (and allowing Sam to escape the gang), the gang of young ne’er-had-a-chances follow their leader, hunt down the newcomer, and basically…erm…kick it to death. ET, this is not (though there are some pleasing similarities, with the gang on bikes and one faintly pathetic scooter).

That’s the start of the movie’s moral arc, which involves taking responsibility for your actions, and if possible, thinking things through before you randomly kick a newcomer to your shores to death. Because it’s that action, the violence from the Earthlings, that ultimately brings the hungry wrath of the aliens down upon their heads en masse.

In fact, there’s a pleasingly rational bit of Doctor Who style plot-reveal which makes sense of everything that’s happening, and ultimately allows the posse from the block to claim at least a kind of victory. Along the way though, there are lessons to be learned, and both Whittaker’s Sam, Boyega’s Moses, and several other gang members have to put their initial social prejudices aside when faced with a bigger threat.

Let’s not get overly sentimental though; there’s also a sub-plot involving other gangsters trying to kill our gangsters because they think they’ve double-crossed them, and because the ‘No seriously, it was aliens!’ explanations of our gang are unbelievable until they’re proven. And once they’re proven, you probably have significantly less head than you started out with.

And that’s part of the point too – sure, there’s good alien buttkicking throughout this movie. Sure, there’s also an arc of personal responsibility, with Sam having to repair the leg of one of her attackers, and Moses ultimately having to take the rap for his alien-killing actions, which have inadvertently caused the deaths of a lot of his friends and a couple of police officers.

But yes – there’s also a realistic human focus on the petty squabbles between different groups of people too. And there’s lots of dialogue comedy to lift the darkness of the alien ape-bear invasion and the slaughter that comes with it.
Bizarrely, for a movie that seems to have more or less everything, Attack The Block didn’t do great box office business at first. But it won some impressive reviews, and did some careers no harm at all. Joe Cornish, already semi-famous in the UK as one half of comedy duo Adam and Joe, went on to write the movie version of Tintin (which had been a Steven Moffatt gig till Sherlock exploded out of nowhere, and Moffatt found himself showrunning both Doctor Who and Sherlock simultaneously), and then the movie of Ant-Man for the Marvel MCU. John Boyega will now forever be famous for his presence in the Star Wars universe – though arguably, here in Attack The Block he’s given much more to do, and he certainly does it to an impressively high standard. Nick Frost of course had been famous before, and went on… still being famous afterward. Jodie Whittaker eventually graduated from an alien-fighting nurse to an alien-fighting Doctor, and both Luke Treadaway and Franz Drameh have had impressive TV careers since Attack The Block. It’s uncanny to learn that Alex Esmail hasn’t done a lot better in his acting career, because as Pest, the ‘Artful Dodger’ of the gang, he really adds a lot of light and hilarious shade, sometimes lifting, sometimes connecting the people and sections of the story.

Ultimately, it’s easy to see why this movie boosted careers, though. It’s well acted, well directed, delivers on the threat, the fear and the gore of an alien invasion movie, even giving cogent reasons why things happen the way they do. And it leavens the whole thing with realism, tension, Jodie Whittaker’s impressively ordinary swearing and a lot of comedy dialogue that actually shows the high-level verbal cut and thrust of gang life.

And above all, it’s a fabulous popcorn-munching alienfest, with a built-in game of ‘Oh, it’s them from that other thing!’ baked right in. What’s not to love?

Watch Attack the Block today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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