Jay’s review published on Letterboxd:
Over the past few years, the British film industry has evolved into a new, more intense little beast. Whilst we can still churn out a cracking little kitchen-sink drama or a thought-provoking bit of social commentary, the nature of the industry is changing. Ever since Nick Frost and Simon Pegg proved that the British are capable of taking the classic blockbuster formula and giving it a more relatable and accessible home, in the form of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, up and coming filmmakers have been much more ambitious in their outlook and much more creative in the output. Take, for instance, Attack the Block. This is a film that takes the well-worn alien invasion formula and combines it with a story about youth culture and the so-called ‘underclass’ of inner-city London to give us a product that is quite flawed yet very enjoyable and wonderfully unique.
With an £8million budget, Joe Cornish’s first feature film tells the story of an alien invasion aimed not at the World, or even an individual country, but at a rundown tower block in Brixton. It focuses primarily on a gang of petty criminals who happen to live in said block, led by a fifteen year old named Moses (John Boyega). Bored one Guy Fawkes’ Night, the gang decide to mug a nurse by the name of Sam (Jodie Whittaker) on her way home from work, only to be interrupted by a creature crashing down from the sky beside them. After Sam runs away, the teenagers – in their wisdom – decide to kick the living shit out of the creature and take it back to the block, convinced that it’ll be worth a small fortune to them. Alas, things soon take a turn for the worse when many more of these creatures arrive to take revenge. Soon, the residents of the block – including Sam – must put their differences aside and come up with a plan to defeat the alien invaders and protect the block from total destruction.
One of the great things about this film is that it is clearly the result of a serious labour of love. All of the classic sci-fi tropes are on offer here and it often feels like a re-enactment of how actual humans, rather than the heroes of Hollywood blockbusters, would react to such a situation. The premise, though simple, is an engaging one and Cornish makes good use of a modest budget to tell a story that is believable (as far as alien invasion stories can be “believable”) and entertaining. At just shy of ninety minutes, the film doesn’t become too concerned with explanations or deep storytelling, and the invasion story acts as a lovely backdrop to the more important story of a downtrodden community, rife with crime and poverty, coming together to protect the one thing that binds them; their home. When you compare this to the similar but ultimately predictable and uninspiring Storage 24, it’s easy to see why Attack the Block has received much of the critical acclaim that it has.
On a similar note, it’s not just that the style or the plot that have clearly been devised by a fan of the genre, the portrayal of London and its inhabitants has also clearly been written by somebody who knows what he is talking about. Whilst I have numerous issues with the individual characters and the manner in which they have been written, which I shall discuss shortly, as a collective the group of people we are supposed to get behind are pretty solid. They’re all flawed, not least the lead character Moses, and they can all be quite irritating, but at least they’re relatable and human. The group mentality is pretty much spot-on and the determination of the characters to protect the only thing they have, their home, is really endearing, and I love that none of them broke into cockney rhyming slang or started giving it all Michael Caine, like they undoubtedly would have done were Hollywood to have attempted to make this film. They’re all relatable (to an extent) and they’re the kind of people you can imagine seeing on a daily basis. Their reactions seem genuine, their behaviour – though obviously exaggerated for dramatic effect – is believable and though they can be incredibly annoying, it’s hard not to want them to succeed.
Unfortunately, despite this, the film is still quite flawed and it’s impossible to ignore some of its larger problems. A huge part of this boils down to the script and the manner in which the characters speak. As I said, I’m glad that they don’t speak like the characters in Lock, Stock… and I think that Cornish does manage to capture youth slang really quite well at the start of the film but, as it goes on, he is unable to maintain it. There is a lot of clunky exposition, in which the stars are forced to break from character so they can explain what is going on, and it does grate quite a lot. Similarly, though the characters work as a group, they’re all very one-dimensional when you consider them as individuals and whilst this may be the point, I didn’t feel like I could really connect to any of them. Their relationship and their respect for each other is endearing and the way their friendship evolves during the course of the film is quite sweet but I still felt like there was a disconnect between the characters and the audience, even though they were clearly far more realistic than the characters in most films like this.
It is the problems with the script that are the biggest let down too because there are moments of real gold in there. At times it is laugh-out-loud funny and has a real satirical edge to it, and two of the characters in particular – Pest (Alex Esmail), Moses’ second-in-command, and Brewis (Luke Treadaway), a rich Zoology student and committed stoner – are absolutely hilarious. Similarly, there a few dramatic sequences in which the script is highly engaging and these are probably the film’s strongest moments. If only the rest of the script weren’t so clunky, it could have been a phenomenal success. I appreciated the fact that the characters talked as they do but at the same time I found it a bit stereotypical and a bit overdone, particularly when they then abandon this manner of speaking in order to deliver the aforementioned exposition.
However, when it comes to an alien invasion film, all of the above takes a backseat to what really matters; the creatures and the action. Here, we have a something of a mixed bag. There was something menacing about the creatures and I thought that the way they moved was quite impressive, but their actual design made me laugh and it reminded me of something out of a really cheap episode of Doctor Who. I accept that the budget was tight and that it is difficult to make believable looking aliens when you don’t have all of the effects that Hollywood has to offer, but I just couldn’t buy into the aliens as much of a threat because they looked a bit daft. Nevertheless, the action sequences are quite exhilarating at times and Cornish’s skilful direction helps to make the film feel pretty slick, particularly during some of the earlier chase scenes, which is amazing when you consider how little he had to work with. On a similar note, the violence is far more extreme than I was expecting and the gore looks pretty good.
On the whole, this is a very ambitious and enjoyable piece of cinema that doesn’t quite work as well as I wanted it to but is great fun all the same. For what it is, it’s a great little film and it’s hard to fault just how fresh it is. It offers a nice mix of action, drama and social commentary and it’s great to see a project like this even being made at all. Joe Cornish is obviously a talented guy and I’m looking forward to seeing more of his work in the future.