Is Attack the Block destined to be a cult favorite? Probably. A sleeper hit? If it’s marketed correctly. A great film? Absolutely. Writer-director Joe Cornish has created an action-thriller that is fast, frenetic, and fun, with a big heart and a sharp wit. While it may be billed as the next Shaun of the Dead, Cornish has crafted his own glow-fanged beast that isn’t an homage to the alien invasion genre but rather resets it into a framework you’ve never seen before. The film is grounded by the fresh, lively performances of its young lead actors, including a breakthrough turn from John Boyega, and while you may not understand every word they say, their attitude and the attitude of Attack the Block comes in loud and clear.
Cornish kicks off his film with a bold premise: by having street toughs as five of his main character. Rather than seeing them act nobly from the get-go, we see the leader Moses (Boyega) and his gang—Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones), and Biggz (Simon Howard)—give a knifepoint mugging to Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young woman on her way home. They steal her cell phone, her purse, and a ring that is clearly precious to her, and then she manages to run away. When one of the gang members tells Moses that she’s escaping, he simply says “Allow it.”
I’m going to pause the plot recap for a moment to describe how perfect that moment is. In an instant, the script and Boyega’s commanding performance tell us everything we need to know about Moses. He’s not only the leader of his gang, but he sees himself as the king of the block and he controls the fates of the block’s inhabitants. At this early point in the film, we should despise Moses and his crew, but with two words, Boyega and Cornish have made us interested in the character even if we can’t condone his actions.
The reason Moses lets Sam escape is that he’s fascinated by an object that has crashed down from the cosmos and into a parked car. He goes to check it out and a small, very angry and very toothy alien attacks him. He manages to stab it, it escapes, and the boys give chase. They manage to track it down, kill it, and then go parading it around as a trophy. The scene is absolutely hilarious in part because it turns the alien invasion genre on its head and partially because the gang is so energetic and hyped. Imagine if a tiny xenomorph from the Alien franchise came down to Earth, got slaughtered by a bunch of street thugs, and then they went around the neighborhood parading their kill. We shouldn’t be on their side this early in the film, but their jocund performances and Cornish’s fantastic direction has us rooting for a group of guys who just mugged a woman.
Unfortunately for the gang and the inhabitants of their low-rent apartment building (known as “The Block”), the alien they killed wasn’t the nasty one. When the boys see more UFOs crashing into South London, they assume it’s more easily killable aliens and they charge out with samurai swords, baseball bats, and fireworks to earn more trophies. But these aren’t the same aliens. They’re bigger, meaner, covered in thick black fur, and have lots and lots of glow-in-the-dark teeth that look like eyes when their jaws are shut. It’s tough to design a distinctive, memorable alien, but Attack the Block pulls it off and it’s great hearing the characters constantly refer to the invaders as “angry werewolf-looking motherfuckers.”
The gang quickly realizes their disadvantage, runs back to the block, discovers that Sam is actually their neighbor, and they have to team-up with their recent victim in order to survive the alien attack. Also trying to survive the onslaught are periphery characters in the block like aspiring street toughs Probs (Sammy Williams) and Mayhem (Michael Ajao), the weed dealing Ron (Nick Frost), his client Brewis (Luke Treadaway), and Ron and Moses’ villainous boss Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), who is after Moses for a reason that’s not entirely convincing beyond holding Moses responsible for bringing the cops down on the block. There are few flaws in Attack the Block, but one of them is that I had trouble believing that anyone could actually confront the alien and then want to dish out petty revenge against a subordinate while the invasion was still underway.
Perhaps Hi-Hatz makes that motivation clear in one of his speeches, but the other major hurdle of Attack the Block is the thick South London dialect of the gang. I could tell the gang apart from each other due to their distinctive personalities, but with the exception of Moses, I couldn’t clearly make out their names until halfway through the film. But while the heavy dialects are a bit of a problem, once you settle into the rhythm of their speech and slang, you can follow what they’re saying. There have been discussions over whether or not the film should be subtitled, but I think that would detract from the picture. I’m not anti-subtitles, but they imply foreignness and would put distance between the audience and the characters. It’s also a level of unintentional comedy because you can understand most of what they say and so subtitles would feel unnecessary.
The dialogue is also intentionally fast-paced in order to keep up with the rhythm set by Cornish. There are bound to be comparisons to Edgar Wright because of the way the film is cut and the excellent score, but Cornish has clearly set this film up as an action-thriller that plays it straight while there’s a playfulness in Wright’s direction that makes even the most mundane action feel epic. That’s not to imply that Attack the Block is humorless, but rather that it simply has a different style which weaves comic dialogue into a claustrophobic thriller.
Running parallel to Cornish’s outstanding direction are the central performances. In lesser films, characters are simply stuffed with one-liners with no consideration of that character’s personality. By contrast, everything anyone says in Attack the Block feels organic. Pest functions as the comic-relief character, but everyone gets to deliver a different kind of humor based on their attitude. More importantly, these guys are likable and that goes a long way into putting us back on their side. The formula for most movies is “Don’t be a jerk,” and while the movie does build to a redemptive storyline for Moses, it’s never heavy-handed and the gang doesn’t acknowledge that burden. They’re simply trying to survive the night but Sam keeps the balance of the film by not simply letting them off the hook. She’s not willing to give them credit simply for showing decency or fighting to survive. Her presence keeps the movie honest and adds strength to the film’s subtext regarding the identity of victims, survivors, and predators.
I don’t know where Attack the Block will land in relation to the width and timing of its domestic release, its box office, or its likely cult following. That’s in the hands of the distributor and the audience. I can’t do anything about the former, but I can tell you right now you should be a part of the latter. If you get the chance to see Attack the Block, allow it because you’re probably going to love it.