This review contains spoilers.
Released on DVD today ‘Attack the Block’ screams to be watched in a double bill with ‘Super 8′ as flipsides of the same kids v monster flick; one so American retro, the other so British contemporary, both revealing the true size of the Atlantic divide in terms of cultural styles. ‘Super 8′ is the American ideal. ‘Attack the Block’ is the British reality. In ‘Super 8′ the beast is befriended. In ‘Attack the Block’ it’s beheaded. In their final frames the hero of ‘Super 8′ gets the girl and bonds with dad. The hero of ‘Attack the Block’ gets slammed into a police wagon. Both save their worlds, but they are worlds apart.
‘Attack the Block’ is a straight-up British b-movie, told in realtime and set in an inner city estate ruled by gangs of mixed race kids who want to be the real gun-toting drug-shifting deal because England isn’t offering them all that many alternatives. They’re distrusted & feared by the wider society for no better reason than being black and living on an estate, but the extraterrestrial crisis that rapidly threatens all colours & creeds clarifies a simpler truth. They’re just kids, playing big boys games at first, but resolutely fighting the alien menace because it’s what they’ve had to do all their lives. Our hero, Moses, has absolutely no-one to fall back on outside his gang. He is otherwise totally alone in a world that’s taught him only self-reliance in the face of endless antipathy.
And the rest of his gang are much the same. Perhaps some have loving parents, perhaps others aren’t doing too bad academically, but they’ve all bonded because they’re prejudged. Outsiders define them by their hoods, and they play up to it because they’re just kids, albeit with samurai swords and colossal balls.
This is all incidental social commentary, by the way, that you can take or leave on the screen. None of it reduces the movie’s impact as a funny, thrilling monster ride. It’s ‘The Goonies’ via Noel Clarke, but it’s still ‘The Goonies’.
Well, almost. ‘Attack the Block’ starts with our tooled-up ‘heroes’ mugging a white nurse for her mobile. Then the first alien hits, smashing through the roof of a nearby car. The gang manage to kill it and drag the body back to their block for evaluation by skunk-peddler Ron (Nick Frost) with one eye on flogging it to the National Geographic crowd.
Soon, though, many more are landing, far more powerful and far more vicious than the first. The gang go hunting but are soon beaten back, at which point it becomes more of a running down dark corridors away from swarming snarling teeth kinda classic monster movie. Beasties are dispatched, gang members get munched, and gradually the numbers dwindle until, when the truth and solution are finally revealed, there’s only one man up for the job.
John Boyega is a revelation as Moses, surly enough to be scary but with an obvious soul beneath the swagger. Apparently he’s bagged the lead in ‘Da Brick’, Spike Lee’s HBO pilot based loosely on Mike Tyson’s early years, and he’s going to be perfect. The rest of the young cast are almost as good, the creature design (basically jet black gorilladogs with massive UV teeth) is superb in its simplicity, the pace is unrelenting once the alien invasion begins in earnest, and it’s surprisingly easy on the eye.
I was expecting a grimy shakycam fest, but every shot looks lovingly composed. This is the inner city glorified. Yes, Joe Cornish has made a fairly straightforward monster movie, but it’s brilliantly executed. Silly, maybe, at times, but it never quite loses its edge. When the gang are forced to team up with the nurse, they can’t forgive her for squealing to the police just as she can’t forgive them for pulling a blade. It’s an uneasy truce that gives the film weight even when the firework rockets start flying.
And I thought they chose a brave final fate for Moses. The nurse’s protestations are lost on the cops because she’d already fingered him for the mugging and the law’s the law, thwarted alien invasion or no. Still, there’s a sense of delayed justice. No way will she press charges now, and, in that final frame, as the ecstatic crowd chant his name, we see a glimpse of the boy Moses once was and could be again. The people’s approbation wrings a genuine smile from him, for the first time in the film, and it feels like the most uplifiting ending you could hope for.
‘Attack the Block’ is my first review to feature a traditional five-star rating system, and it gets a well deserved: