Attack the Block (2011)
Written & Directed by Joe Cornish
In the wake of Edgar Wright’s success with Sean of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, there was suddenly a demand for smart takes on genre movies, and it seemed like the British were very talented at writing these stories. Joe Cornish was a comedian who co-hosted the popular Adam and Joe Show, a skit comedy series that ran on Channel 4 for five years. He went on to do a radio show with his writing partner Adam Buxton and that ended when production on Attack the Block began. After being mugged by youths from a housing project, Cornish started to wonder how these very tough kids would handle an alien invasion in their neighborhood, and the story was born.
Samantha (Jodie Whittaker) is a nurse headed home from work when she is mugged by a quintet of teenage hoodlums. A meteorite falls from the sky, distracting them and allowing Samantha to run off. Moses (John Boyega) is scratch by the hairy eyeless creature within the meteor, so he and his friends track it down and kill it. But it is quickly revealed that this was just the advance man for the host of larger, deadlier beasts. Samantha and Moses become allies as the creatures surrounding Wyndham Tower, and they are forced to fight for their survival. Around the building are other friends and enemies, all getting entangled with the creatures out to kill them.
This was Joe Cornish’s feature film debut, and he nails it right from the start. Cornish has a soft spot for 1980s blockbusters like Ghostbusters, Gremlins, and others. And his career as a comedy writer has helped him figure out how to structure a tightly written narrative that doesn’t waste a second and comes in at just under an hour and a half long. There’s no unnecessary exposition about the aliens or an attempt to explain where they came from. We are getting the story from the perspective of kids living on a government estate, so they just want to kill these monsters. They are presented as having a level of bravado and rational adult wouldn’t. They run into the fight wielding novelty samurai swords and baseball bats. But Cornish also delivers grave consequences; kids actually die here.
There is something to be said for giving a little more time to develop this core group of kids fighting the aliens, but the story’s nature doesn’t provide them significant downtime to talk and share those details. There’s a human antagonist introduced, Hi-Hat, a local drug lord that is both a comical buffoon and potential threat that never really feels like anything other than a gruesome death at the aliens’ hands set up in the first act. The real destructive forces are these nameless aliens whose production design is such a clever workaround with a limited budget. The creatures are pitch black so that they blend in with the night. The only thing notable about their appearance is their bioluminescent jaws. It makes for a fantastic visual when you see these points of green fanged light against the void of a darkened hallway.
While enjoying 1980s classics, Cornish also knows his movie is about a black teenage hero living in a system where cops, who might be portrayed heroically in other media, are not seen as friends. The characters can’t call the police for help because, as they explain to Samantha, they will be blamed for the aliens killing a pair of cops and stealing a police van to escape the monsters. The film’s finale has Moses saving the day and being arrested along with his surviving friends. The neighborhood residents cheer him on as a hero because they know what he did, but the authoritarian police just see him as another young black man responsible for the building’s chaos.
It’s that element that makes Attack the Block hit with a little more weight. This is a fun, energetic, alien invasion action-comedy written by someone who knows they are presenting us with uncommon protagonists in a movie like this. Our introduction to these heroes is them robbing a “nice white lady,” but by the end of the picture, I would be surprised if everyone isn’t cheering on Moses as he makes a choice that risks his own life to protect everyone else’s.