Attack the Block (2011)

16 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How often does it happen in a movie—and a monster movie, at that—when you start out hating the main characters and then wind up rooting for them when things get crazy? One example that comes to mind is “From Dusk Till Dawn.” If you recall that movie, it was about two murderous fugitives who kidnap a family and then have to work together to fend themselves against vile vampires. Now in “Attack the Block,” a sci-fi/horror film from the UK, we have a thuggish gang of inner city London teenagers banding together with their latest victim of mugging to fight a swarm of predatory creatures from outer space.

That’s a central element in “Attack the Block,” an entertaining thriller with an adventurous feel, decent special effects, and a cast of mainly unknown but talented young actors. It begins as a young nurse named Sam (Jodie Whitaker) is walking home on the bad side of town, where she is mugged by a gang of five young hoodlums. A meteorite lands nearby, interrupting the mugging, and scampers in the form of a small, furry, fanged alien that scratches the face of the gang leader Moses (John Boyega). The kids chase after the little beast and beat it to death, like the big shots they think they are.

But guess what! There are a lot more where that came from. So Moses and the others—Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Biggz (Simon Howard), and Jerome (Leeon Jones)—get excited and grab a bunch of weapons (including swords, fireworks, and a baseball bat) to take them down. But it turns out that these creatures are bigger and more vicious than the thing they killed before. When one of them bites Pest’s leg, they need Sam’s nursing training to help. The gang assures her that there are worse things out there to be scared of than them. While inside their tower block, they, along with a druggie named Brewis (well-played by Luke Treadaway, who provides comic relief), band together to survive the night.

It’s so strange how this movie develops with its characters. When the movie starts with Sam, walking down the street and talking to her mum on her cell phone, we immediately suspect that she’s the central character. But then the gang shows up and mugs her and we follow them for just about the rest of the movie. These are people we’re supposed to hate. And we don’t like them indeed, at first. They’re vile, they talk trash, and they get stoned. Then the aliens show up and the boys realize they might not stand much of a chance against them. That’s when the gang starts to become sympathetic individuals. They think things through, attempt to keep each other safe, and rely on their wits to survive. This ordeal is also a great learning experience for them. Moses realizes later that everywhere he goes, trouble seems to follow him and everyone near him. He shouldn’t have gone looking for trouble in the first place. He chased down the first creature, killed it, and now the others are here for vengeance. At one moment, he tells the others, “I don’t want no one else to die.”

“Attack the Block” is the film debut of writer-director Joe Cornish, who also would co-write Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin.” Like most ambitious filmmakers, he starts out with a familiar genre to see what he could do with it before seeing what else he could do, which I am curious about. He takes what could have been just a monster movie and surrounds it with a sense of place (London after dark looks nice and mysterious), real personalities of the characters, and some truly gruesome monsters. He also brings about a mixed bag of characters. Aside from Moses, his friends, Sam, and Brewis, we also have—Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), the block’s main thug who chases the kids and the aliens; Ron (Nick Frost, “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”), the local drug dealer; the gang’s girlfriends whose main purpose is to scream and laugh; and Probs and Mayhem (Sammy Williams and Michael Ajao), two nine-year-olds who want to be the big shots on the block and go after the aliens themselves (armed with a Super Soaker).

I should also give credit to Cornish for the use of the aliens. These vile, nasty creatures are coated in entirely black fur to blend into the night. They resemble werewolves, except that they have no glowing eyes (they have none), but neon green fanged teeth. That’s kind of weird though, if you think about it. Would you really believe that these predatory monsters would have the right tools for space travel? They don’t seem to be that smart, really. They merely act on instinct. But they work as gruesome monsters.

The young actors are all exceptionally terrific, especially John Boyega who has a commanding presence as Moses, and Alex Esmail as Pest, who provides comic relief and has a backpack full of fireworks that come in handy.

The British slang that these kids use—“bruv,” “fam,” “wagwan,” to name a few—grows tiresome, even if that is how inner city kids in London talk. And Hi-Hatz’s motive for going after both the kids and the aliens doesn’t hold very well. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if he were willing to stand by Moses’ side to fight the aliens themselves? It seems like Hi-Hatz is the most ruthless person on the block. But then again, Moses did need a ruthless, cold-blooded, older person to convince him (unintentionally) that this isn’t who he should become. But for the most part, “Attack the Block” is a good deal of fun. The action and characters go well together, the creatures are suitably gruesome, and it’s over in just an hour and a half. It’s awesome, bruv!

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