A more timely film in late 2011 is hard than this enthusiastic paean to the untapped potential of miscreant British youth. Joe Cornish steps up for auteur props in writing and directing this alien invasion flick that sports a bunch of snotty young punks in a London council tower, forced to trade a budding life of crime for Sigourney Weaver status. Attack the Block commences with said youths mugging comely young nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker), unaware that she lives in the same council tower block named, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it in-joke, Wyndham Tower. Just as the lads are fleecing the unfortunate miss, a meteorite plunges from the sky, totals a car, and out from it springs forth a creature that looks part rodent, part feral fish, and all nasty. The leader of the gang, Moses (Joe Boyega), determines to kill the creature after it takes a swipe at him, and he and his mates chase it into a shed where they beat it to death. After deciding that their catch must certainly be extra-terrestrial in origin, they stash it in the safest place they know: in the flat of Ron (Nick Frost), specifically the room he has fortified to grow his hydroponic weed in, under the aegis of local gangster overlord Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). The brats’ initial triumph over the small grey monster unfortunately proves a mere overture to a hail of meteorites which divulge larger, blacker, hairier creatures with phosphorescent teeth and decidedly non-vegetarian tastes. When Moses is arrested by the “Feds” Sam has called, the creatures attack and kill two of the cops and force Moses, Sam, and the rest to flee in the cop van, only to crash into Hi-Hatz’ car, which adds another deadly foe to the already sizeable roster pursuing them. The gang barge their way into Sam’s flat to take shelter there, but no matter where they flee, the monsters seem to specifically hunt for them.
Attack the Block is nothing if not a self-conscious wannabe cult hit, channelling some of Luc Besson’s pop-cultural savvy in recognising the rougher parts of town as a great place to set action films, as well as being filled with the most loyal audience for them. The milieu offers urgency and grit, simmering class and race tensions, as Cornish describes a locale beset with young wannabe toughs who want to triumph on the only level they can see open to them, that of validated machismo and strength. But it’s all imbued here with a more distinctly tongue-in-cheek bent derived from Frost’s collaborations with Edgar Wright (who executive produced) and Simon Pegg, full of stoner humour and casual acceptance of absurdity by the young antiheroes. Amongst the kids, the most effectively drawn is the smart-mouthed, pot-hungry wigger Pest (Alex Esmail), who at one point offers a deadly rejoinder to Sam’s assurances that she has a boyfriend who’s working with children in Ghana: “Why isn’t he helping kids in Brixton? Not exotic enough, can’t get a nice suntan?” Cornish maintains a lightning pace, at the expense of expanding on character and locale minutiae, however, taking it mostly as a given that the kids are really just brats with hearts of gold and justifiable anger at the cops, and that there’s supposed to be something innately noble about their determination to go it alone. Without getting too David Cameron about it, I did start to wonder if my charity was being presumed upon.
Attack the Block’s charms are the kind that can easily be dispelled if over-estimated, as some of its reception has unfortunately managed. The problem is that the film is energetic and occasionally very funny, yet also too proud of its own stunts and lacking much formal control. Excising a first act and rushing the third, Cornish’s writing offers a constant stream of pseudo-hip jive blending the referential with glutinous street argot falling from the characters’ mouths, laying out Cornish’s self-ordained credentials as a witty modern wordsmith. Nonetheless it’s virtually impossible to tell most of the characters apart for over half the movie. Whilst finally some characterisation does creep in, it’s so scant as to feel mostly like a placeholder until someone redrafts the script. Attack the Block just doesn’t work with the same degree of sophistication as some earlier, better examples of the jokey monster movie, like Tremors (1990) or Dog Soldiers (2001), in sustaining dramatic credence alongside the self-mocking humour, although it’s arguable the film really owes more to The Goonies (1985): take away the swear words and the film would fit the bill very nicely as a family outing. The film can’t decide whether it wants to undercut satirically or validate generically the macho posturing of Moses and his little jerk mates, or do one then the other with any real sense of integrity. Cornish takes so little care in his set-up, and offers such absurd alien monsters and limply staged violence, and the kids’ urban argot and swagger is initially so totalised and tiresome, that Attack the Block feels for much of its first half like Ali G vs the Aliens.
Attack the Block does finally settle down and begin to form a semblance of narrative cohesion and actual human communication in the first real pause for respite in Sam’s flat, as the try-hard youths let their guards down and their basic characters start to reveal themselves: Moses is beset by a desperate need to prove his manhood; Jerome (Leeon Jones) is an essentially level-headed and friendly tagalong, and Pest just wants to get high. He meets his toffy equivalent in Ron’s client, the uni-educated, grass-peddling, stay-at-home Brewis (Luke Treadaway), whose initial attempts to get down with the kids are laughingly rejected, but who, with his finally useful knowledge of biology and readiness to share cigarette papers, proves a decent bloke. As far as philosophies of national healing go, “one nation under the leaf” isn’t such a bad one. When Sam has to make a desperate dash through enemy territory as part of the final plan to trap the monsters, Brewis assures he that he would go in her place if “I wasn’t so profoundly stoned.” One of the best gags sees Moses trying to strike down a beastie with the samurai sword one of his mates conveniently brings to the battle, only to get the blade stuck in the notoriously porous material from which the tower block flats' walls are made, a joke that neatly dovetails situational satire, character comedy, and plain suspense. Cornish does offer one good sequence of stalk and chomp as short-sighted Jerome gets lost in the smoke created by the heroes’ firework artillery, at the mercy of lurking beasts, and there’s a dash of real style as Moses makes his final do-or-die dash through the thronging monsters, leaping in newly heroic slow motion as fireworks burst about him. But the finale, in which Sam and Moses manage to recreate the monster kiss-off from Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic (1997), offers the image of Moses hanging from a fortuitously dangling Union Jack on the exterior of the tower. Here, and elsewhere, the film occasionally reeks of the same jokey-but-not parochialism and tiresomely frantic mockbuster attitude exhibited in Russell Davies’ Doctor Who reboot. Still, Attack the Block is fun if in an undemanding mood. Performances help a great deal: in addition to Treadaway’s and Esmail’s comic excellence, Whittaker effectively contrasts her own stint as a low-class scrub in Venus (2006), and Boyega reveals some genuine talent in playing Moses’ ambivalent efforts to live up to his self-image.