For what feels like an eternity, the mere mention of Attack the Block has been enough to make me start shaking with rage. Not because the movie was bad, mind you, or because there was something about the film that offended me to the core of my being. No, the problem is that every mention of this movie sounded absolutely amazing, and I had no way of knowing when I would be able to see it.
See, this is a British movie — exec-produced by Edgar friggin’ Wright, no less — that came to America on a limited run. The plan was to start out in LA, NYC, and a handful of other cities, then to gradually spread through the country. This happens all the time. Countless films have done it before, and it always leads to a Portland premiere in short order. Alas, the film first hit American shores on July 29th.
Rave reviews have been passing across my desktop ever since, all without any date of arrival in Portland. My frustration hit its apex last week, when news hit that the movie had come to Spokane. This movie came to Spokane before the slightest mention of a premiere in Portland. Fucking Spokane!
I can’t begin to express the envious rage that I’ve felt for the past month, knowing that so many film geeks nationwide were taking part in this experience that was being denied me for no decent reason. Luckily, all of that is ancient history, as I learned today that without any advance warning, Attack the Block had suddenly started playing in the City of Roses. At the Lloyd Center 10, no less.
Though I immediately went to the film as soon as I heard this news, I couldn’t help bringing all of that baggage with me into the theater. I was hoping for an experience worthy of all the hype, but I was also expecting a letdown of enormous proportions. Then the movie played, the credits rolled, and I instantly knew what the talk was all about.
The premise is a simple one: Aliens invade, common people fight them off. It’s a tired premise, and alien invasion movies are absurdly common nowadays, but this movie wastes absolutely no time freshening the premise up.
For example, most alien invasion movies spend a fair amount of build-up to the invasion, and the filmmakers bide their time revealing the monsters. Not here. In this movie, the first alien fight comes a mere five minutes in. Two minutes later, the main characters are dragging around the carcass of the beast they just killed. Fifteen minutes later, alien reinforcements arrive. And in another novel twist, the second wave of aliens look nothing like the first one we saw. So there’s always that underlying question of what the difference is between these two types.
Then there’s the matter of our heroes. The film is set in a particularly slummy part of south London, and the movie opens with a woman getting mugged by a crew of young hoodlums. And we follow the young criminals. They’re the heroes of the piece.
In any other movie, I’d say that this makes them unsympathetic and that it saps away any terror we get at their gruesome deaths. But not here. First of all, these kids are extremely loyal to each other. They’re best friends who would (and probably have) lay down their lives for each other. This shows empathy and compassion — if only toward each other — which show that these street thugs still have some good in them. That brings me to my second point: These are still just kids. They have their whole lives ahead of them to do something positive, given half a chance and a reprieve from death by alien invasion. Thirdly, these kids go through most of the movie acting entirely out of defense. Yes, they’re just a bunch of teenage delinquents and yes, their apartment building is completely run-down, but it’s still their home and they’ll still fight to defend it.
The long and short of it is that these kids start out as street trash and they develop into heroes. It may not be an original character arc, but damned if it isn’t satisfying to watch. Of course, it also helps that the film never lets us forget that our heroes are still criminals and they’re still only kids. They’ve always been compassionate to each other, they’re just extending that compassion to the rest of the apartment complex. They’ve always been tough, but this new challenge pushes them to be tougher than ever. In this way, the development of these characters feels natural.
Moving on, let’s think about what we’ve got here. The premise of children coming of age by fighting monsters is a trope as old as time itself. The difference is that these kids are creative enough to immediately think that these monsters are aliens, stupid enough to charge in fighting them, and smart enough not to waste any time about it. These kids have already fought beside each other, they know all the best local shortcuts and means of avoiding capture, and they’ll defend each other to the gates of hell. Also, they’ve got lethal weapons with the knowledge of how to use them. Basically, these kids are the perfect team of horror movie heroes.
Also, unlike some other horror movie protagonists, these kids don’t waste any time calling the authorities. Why would they, since they’re criminals who deeply and inherently mistrust cops? Really, there’s an anti-government theme to the proceedings that manifests itself in several implicit and explicit ways. My personal favorite one was the choice to set this film on November 5th. Not only does that date carry a ton of revolutionary baggage, but it also means that the signs of alien invasion will be lost amid all the fireworks, and the police will be too busy to provide support.
Another great example of the anti-government theme is in the handcuffs. Midway through the film (at the end of the first act or thereabouts), the lead character gets handcuffed by the police. Naturally, he escapes police custody and some heavy-duty bolt cutters are used to slice the cuffs apart. But here’s the kicker: Unlike pretty much every other film ever made, in which the cuffs magically unlock themselves and fall off after being cut from each other, the shackles stay in place. They stay on the character’s wrists throughout the rest of the movie, and I’ll remind you that he’s a black teenager. The filmmakers are good enough not to call attention to this or to make any overt point about it, but it’s a powerful image nonetheless.
By the way, that character is Moses, played by John Boyega. Remember that name, because this kid is going places. His character is the de facto leader of the crew, and Boyega plays him in such a way that it’s obvious to see why. He’s got charisma, he’s got intelligence, and he’s cool under pressure in ways that his comrades aren’t. He’s incredibly badass for being so young, and he’s definitely the kind of guy one would follow into battle. There are so many times when Moses is saddled with cliched actions and dialogue that falls flat, yet Boyega brings just enough vulnerability to make these moments work.
The other actors are all amazing. Jumayn Hunter is just the right combination of scary and stupid to play the film’s primary criminal. Nick Frost doesn’t do much, but his presence is still enough to elevate the movie. The crew of young street thugs are all played with great chemistry and comedic timing. Yet my honorable mention goes to Jodie Whittaker in the role of Sam. Remember that woman who gets mugged at the start of the film? Yeah, that’s her.
Sam is a nurse, and it turns out that she’s also living the apartment complex where all of this is going down. Naturally, our team of heroes needs whatever medical expertise she has, and Sam is smart enough to realize quick that she’s going to be safest if she follows them around. Of course, this means that they have to let bygones be bygones, and also to let go of whatever preconceptions they have about each other. Again, it’s an old narrative arc, but the characters and actors are strong enough to bring a lot of emotional weight to these proceedings. They learn a lot from each other, and the roles they play in the characters’ developments cannot be overstated.
But enough of the humans, what of the aliens? Well, their design is quite interesting, in a simplistic sort of way. Because this was so obviously a low-budget film, the aliens are basically furry black clouds with a single noteworthy gimmick in their design, though the gimmick is used very effectively. Also, maybe this is just my interpretation, but I like to imagine that the aliens are colored in the infrared and/or ultraviolet spectrum, outside the range of human sight. Anyway, though the aliens’ visual design may be lacking, I thought their sound design was appropriately creepy.
The filmmakers constantly show a great amount of competence at working within their limitations, and the whole film is made that much better for it, especially in the category of horror. The film gets repeated use out of several interior sets, which provides a constricted feel. Also, there are several scenes that take place in tiny apartments, which further add to the claustrophobia. But perhaps my favorite example is a scene that takes place in a smoke-filled hallway. The smoke provides a ton of atmosphere, making the tension that much more palpable as neither friend nor foe can be seen. And of course, smoke costs next to nothing. Brilliant.
It almost breaks my heart to give Attack the Block such a hearty recommendation. On the one hand, the characters are beautifully developed, the comedy is solid, the action is very good, the actors are all remarkable, the pacing is spot-on, the horror is nicely effective, and the premise is delivered in a superbly creative fashion that’s expertly crafted with a minimal budget.
On the other hand, I’m amply aware of how difficult it is to see this film through legal channels right now. Not only is Hollywood refusing to give this film the accessibility it deserves, but there’s absolutely no way of knowing when this film will come out on DVD or where it will open next. That’s absolutely criminal, and my deepest sympathies go out to those film geeks who want so badly to see this movie, but can’t. The only consolation I can offer is that this movie already has a large and vocal fanbase (dubbed “Blockheads”), and they can’t be denied forever. One way or another, this movie will make it out into the world for all to see.
When you’re finally able to see this movie (if you aren’t already), jump on it as quickly as you can. It’s not a film to be missed.