What happens when an invasion of intergalactic monsters targets a gang of London youths? You get the thrilling and massively entertaining Attack the Block – the 2011 British science fiction action film that is both authentically sci-fi and authentically human.
Written and directed by Joe Cornish, best known for his involvement with many of friend Edgar Wright’s films as well as co-writing The Adventures of Tintin and Ant-Man, Attack the Block overflows with wit and vision. Contrasting sci-fi scares with inner city kids makes Attack the Block a thrill ride that is underpinned with genuine characters and just enough social commentary to make it connect on a deeper level.
Following a gang of teenagers in a rough London neighborhood who must contend with a group of vicious alien monsters who have crash landed in their block, Attack the Block sticks to a very small scale and narrow focus in its classic alien invasion storyline. The fate of the world is not at stake here, but the fate and future of a band of vibrant characters most certainly is. And that’s one of the film’s great strengths; viewers can’t help but invest in the people here. The teenage gang at the center of the film may be cocky, irresponsible, and difficult, but it is in the realest way possible.
Led by Moses (John Boyega, who would go on to star as Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens), the teenage gang of Pest, Dennis, Jerome, and Biggz has an authenticity that is often lacking in most cinematic hoodlums. It helps that their introduction comes via Samantha (Jodie Whittaker), a nurse who is mugged by them at the film’s start, showing them at their cruelest and most distant. But as she is forced to team up with them in order to survive the quickly escalating invasion, Samantha and the audience see them as deeper characters. They’re still stubborn and difficult in the way any teenage gang member would be, but getting to know them better and seeing glimpses of their home lives subverts initial impressions and makes this a far stronger story as a whole.
There’s also just enough reality creeping into the side plots of the film to make this more than a strictly thrills-focused picture. Crime boss Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) represents the cruel future that awaits Moses should he continue the life he leads, and while Hi-Hatz is mostly a clichéd criminal who exists to serve as a more direct antagonist than the invading monsters, he brings enough real world menace to increase the stakes of the film. Meanwhile, characters like drug dealer Ron (Nick Frost), educated loser stoner Brewis (Luke Treadaway), and the two young local kids who want to be part of the adventure add greater comedic elements to the proceedings through their supporting character archetypes. Cornish’s film doesn’t embellish the laughs to the degree that some may expect, but they make Attack the Block more than just a straight thriller.
While the rest of the gang adds the varied character dynamics, laughs, and shocking deaths needed in a sci-fi thriller like this, this film belongs to Boyega’s Moses. While other gang members are contrasted against their relatively normal family lives, we quickly begin to see that Moses has a far more difficult upbringing. His stoic attitude and toughness isn’t a show, but something he needs to survive. Boyega’s charisma shines through that believably tough exterior, which blends with his increasingly heroic behavior as well as some truly human failings. As the pressures of Hi-Hatz and the alien invasion mount, Moses must come to grips with his responsibility as the leader of his friends and the one whose violence instigated their deadly circumstances. It’s a character arc that echoes real life choices without being overt to the point of distraction, but its conclusions help Attack the Block resonate on a more intimate level than what may be expected when swept up in the violent, electric action of the film.
And that action is quite fantastic. Cornish and cinematographer Tom Townend most often take a horror approach to the monster found in Attack the Block, with the terrifying creatures lurking in the shadows and striking at any moment. But while that viewpoint helps keep the tension brimming, the filmmakers also know when to let the action throttle up. Our heroes aren’t trained fighters or action heroes. They’re teenagers who use bats, bikes, knives, and even a katana to defend themselves in anyway they can. The result is an intentionally sloppy yet electrifyingly shot action film in which the protagonists are as vulnerable as the victims of a slasher flick. As the stakes increase and the gang begins to realize just how outnumbered they are, moments of both victory and loss punctuate the increasingly desperate fight.
The blend of a grounded backdrop with a science fiction slant can be best seen in the film’s setting. While the single night narrative is mostly confined to a couple city blocks and a single apartment complex, the landscape begins to resemble outlandish science fiction worlds just as much as it does London as the narrative progresses. As monsters begin to invade, Cornish’s viewpoint begins to take on a more extreme visual style. The apartment complex itself is covered in piercing lights and is often filmed in a monolithic manner that gives it the appearance of a spaceship. Inside, the harsh lighting, which initially reflects a gritty and cheap real world look, seems further and further removed from real life as the alien invasion mounts. Smoke fills the halls, blood splatters the elevators, and danger lurks around every corner.
Perhaps most brilliantly, these hallways are lit with a timer knob, with the scant minutes of light quickly dimming into pitched darkness as the characters move about them. The relative safety of the light fades throughout numerous scenes, bringing terror reflected in the glowing blue maws of the unknowable beasts that are stalking our heroes.
Speaking of the monsters, the design of the unnamed alien-gorilla-wolf monsters is brilliant. And that brilliance comes in the form of minimalism. So often, sci-fi creatures in modern films are overloaded with detail, asking viewers to pour over every single inch in the often fleeting amount of time in which they are seen on screen.
While that may be one way to highlight the mystery of these creatures, Cornish makes the beasts found in Attack the Block unknowable in the most literal way possible – they have absolutely no detail. These hulking black furry monsters are living pits of darkness, with only their glowing jaws standing out from the spiky black fur and long, creeping arms. The practical effects used here (with the monsters brought to life through costumed performers and puppeteering) mixed with post-production color correction to remove all light and heighten the glowing teeth makes these creatures some of the best modern movie monsters seen in years. The genius on display is thrilling.
While Attack the Block was not a commercial success upon its release, its thrills, style, and sense of fun are infectious, as evidenced by its growing esteem among sci-fi film fans. Any follower of the genre should be enamored with the sharp focus and vision that Cornish brings with every scene.