Quick review: I’ve watched Attack the Block half a dozen times now and it remains the best alien invasion film I’ve ever seen.
Why? (It’s ok. You can ask me that.) I can explain it using only the first ten minutes. If you’re not convinced after ten minutes… well, I’m not sure what to say actually because no one I’ve had this conversation with ever turned the movie off once it got started.
Attack the Block opens on a shot of the night sky, with a single star falling from the heavens, before panning down to reveal fireworks over London. The camera settles, not on the downtown, not on the homes of the wealthy, but on a tube station and a young white woman talking to her mother on her mobile while walking home past street vendors hawking flowers and vegetables. Her hat doesn’t match her coat that doesn’t match her pants and her scarf – well, let’s just assume that an elderly aunt knitted it for her and move on. Kids run down the street with sparklers, as the woman walks into a residential neighborhood with more graffiti than street lamps. A sudden burst of fireworks startles her but there’s no one behind her; she’s jumpy, though we don’t yet know why. She finishes her call with a plan to meet for Sunday dinner, and looks up to see her way blocked by a group of kids wearing dark-colored hoodies and bandanas over their faces. Crossing the street doesn’t stop them from surrounding her and mugging her. Suddenly that falling star is a meteor crashing into a car only a few feet away from them, and the invasion’s begun.
That’s the first two minutes or so of ATTACK THE BLOCK. By the time you get this far into the film you’ve already seen the main characters and half of the cast. (Including John Boyega and Jodie Whittaker!) You know it’s a busy night, with fireworks and celebrations and children running around the streets. You know that we’re going to see something different from most alien invasion movies – this isn’t rural America, this isn’t a military base tracking the incoming ships, this isn’t a global attack. This is poor, mostly black, kids in a rough urban neighborhood thinking they’re the tough ones, they’re the monsters on their street, when meanwhile something is falling from the sky. In the next two minutes a creature emerges from the wrecked car, attacked Moses (the leader of the thugs) and runs into a nearby park. The kids give chase, corner it in a wooden play structure, and Moses kills it. Holding the body aloft, the other kids circle him and chant their victory, their virility, and their defense of their block.
The camera pans back up into the night sky, where more stars are falling, and the title appears on the screen, heavy black letters illuminated by the fiery effect of more aliens entering our atmosphere.
And that’s the first four or five minutes of the movie.
By minute six we get the final bits of backstory and setting that will give the characters a place to arc from. We meet the block itself, Wyndham Tower, a massive housing structure common in England and inhabited by the very poor. It takes up an entire city block, is built from concrete bricks, and looks more like a prison than an apartment building. The mugging victim, taken into a neighbor’s, shakes quietly while the older white female offers tea and sympathy and talks about how the block has changed. About the local kids, the older woman says, “Excuse my French, but they’re fucking monsters, aren’t they?” It’s meant to be classist and racist at the same time, and our female MC agrees.
By now we must know that they’re not familiar with real monsters yet, but they’re about to find out.
In less than ten minutes, you have introduction, setting, characters, action, false sense of security, impending doom, class/race conflicts, and (it becomes apparent later) misunderstandings which the characters must overcome in order to survive.
This quick pace continues all through the movie. There’s no time for verbal exposition, those long moments where characters monologue their deep thoughts on the nature of the universe or their internal selves. These characters are revealed and defined by their fast-patter dialogue with each other, and by their actions. Not a moment onscreen is wasted.
We find out the mugging victim is a nurse when the kids go through her wallet. We meet drug dealers and gangsters, and see the desperation of a kid who’s conscripted into drug running without being given a choice and the joy of a bunch of kids who think he’s found a way to escape the grind of their poverty. We get told this story in between meeting their sisters, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and friends, all inhabitants of the block. We get to see the same kids who mugged a woman an hour before stand up and defend their home any way that they can.
The aliens themselves are brilliant. Fiercely animal, low tech, ultraviolent, with a methodology that makes sense. Fur so black it absorbs light instead of reflecting it, and rows of razor-sharp teeth that glow in the dark. How sexy is that?
There isn’t a single piece of this film that I can find fault with. The writing is sharp, the story is smart, the music fits the mood and the age of the characters, the editing is crisp and syncs perfectly with the cinematography and the sound. There’s violence and gore but not it’s not excessive, and it’s justified by the storyline. No one is killed or escapes simply to further the plot. The story is something that is happening to them, and the ones who live have to be better and smarter than what’s going on around them in order to survive.
If you haven’t seen it already, ATTACK THE BLOCK is worth watching. Self quarantine and world-changing pandemic are hard on a person. You can give yourself a little alien invasion movie, as a treat.
Notes and References:
- This was Joe Cornish’s first feature film as a director. (Wiki)
- Many of the actors speak “Multicultural London English” in the movie, which researchers have found comes from having a diverse group of friends: “the more ethnically diverse an adolescent’s friendship networks are, the more likely it is that they will speak MLE.”
- The name of the council estate they live on is an homage to SF writer John Wyndham, and there’s a fictional street named after J.G. Ballard in the movie too 🙂