13 May 2011


Nestled into a cushy niche in the hectic release schedule of summer 2011, Attack the Block arrives in cinemas and immediately announces itself as the film to beat, between now and September. I've made no secret of the fact that I've really been looking forward to this feature debut from Joe Cornish, of Adam and Joe fame, and happily it measures up to expectations.

The bones of the story are essentially like the basis for a Battle: Brixton movie, as an alien spore containing a vicious man-eating beast plummets into the midst of a South London council estate, interrupting a mugging. The muggers, five teenagers who live on the block, are attacked by the beast, but are able to overpower and kill it. As the kids celebrate their trophy, they don't realise that more spores are on the way- much bigger spores.

The immediate problem that some will have with Attack the Block is that we're expected to sympathise with chavs. There's more to them than that, but the characters are still chavs. Nevertheless, there's a case to be made that both the film's detractors and Cornish's script are guilty of simplifying the character types. To those who are too easily reminded of Eden Lake, and of course the yobs they've encountered in real life, the parallel is set up very early on through a middle aged woman calling the kids "fucking monsters". And then the real monsters turn up.

That concept of "inner city vs. outer space" is innovative and interesting enough that the hero yobs never irked me when they weren't supposed to. On the other hand, we do first meet them as they mug the supposed audience identification figure, a nurse called Sam, played by Jodie Whittaker. This is so harsh an introduction that the film spends a lot of time trying to reconcile the muggers and the victim when they're forced to unite, and these are the only times in which the film rings slightly false.

That's really the full extent of the potentially problematic stuff in Attack the Block, which is as bold and accomplished a debut as Richard Ayoade's Submarine, with all the ambition and technical aptitude of Duncan Jones' Moon. Cornish blends easily with that new wave of British filmmakers dedicated to ambitious and commercial projects that don't forsake storytelling, or that British sense of humour. His brilliant work re-enacting popular blockbusters using only toys in his bedroom on The Adam and Joe Show has somehow translated into a live-action visual sense that outdoes most of the film's relevant contenders in the very first shot.

However, virtually nobody else out there is making British films as ambitious as Cornish has. And under the Spielbergian touches, such as that sumptuous establishing shot that opens the film, there's the entirely valid current of social commentary. John Boyega, Simon Howard, Leeon Jones, Alex Esmail and Franz Drameh may not play hoodies you can hug, but they're all rounded and distinctive characters, equally capable of being despicable, as in the beginning of their journey, and heroic. It's only a shame that the portrayal of yobs on screen will conflict so wildly with the cinema behaviour of the audience it will attract.

It comes in at a lean, mean 88 minutes, and it's all muscle. Nothing's gratuitous, as we zip from the streets to the 19th floor of the block at the break-neck pace of a modern Doctor Who episode, while keeping the stakes high and the characters in mortal peril. The 15 certificate isn't merely for strong language and drug references- the violence of these gloriously designed creatures is faithfully represented, blood and guts and all. The film gets away with not probing the aliens too deeply on the strength of that eccentric character design and the sheer brilliance of the action choreography. 

Attack the Block is a curiously difficult film to define. It's not a ribald comedy, but it is funny. It's not a sci-fi film, but it does have aliens in it. It's not an outright horror, but it consistently jolts you out of your seat. Dismissing issues of genre, it's simpler to say that it's a stupefying success from a director who wastes no time proving that he's enormously talented and refreshingly optimistic. Cornish is also a good enough writer to ensure that the characters are accessible to anyone who's willing to take a chance on some unconventional movie heroes, in a film that's as cinematic as British cinema gets. Your move, Super 8.

Attack the Block is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Attack the Block, why not share your comments below?

 I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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