Film Review: Attack the Block

Directed by Joe Cornish
Starring Nick Frost, Jodie Whittaker and John Boyega
Score:  4/4

Looking at the poster and trailer for Attack the Block, I don’t blame people for not being more excited about this movie.  When the buzz around it started building (especially the audience award at SXSW), I didn’t understand it.  Obviously I was missing something, so I was more curious than anything when I got the invitation to catch a preview screening last night.  What I couldn’t have possibly expected was a film that is a direct descendant of films from John Carpenter, Wes Craven and even Cliver Barker from mostly the 70’s and 80’s.  If you’re not sure if that’s a good thing or not, believe me, it’s a VERY good thing.  When the opening shot of the movie was a static shot of a starry night and a synth score that John Carpenter could have easily written in the 80’s started up as a meteor fell to earth, I immediately got an idea of what I was in for, and this movie met every single one of my expectations.

Attack the Block’s very simple plot is that aliens have landed on Earth and have decided to converge on a single urban block in South London.  Ok, there’s a little more to it than that, but to explain much more would venture off into spoiler territory, and this film need to be experienced knowing as little as possible.  The story starts with a group of 5 hooligans robbing a girl on her way home from work.  She calls the cops, the cops catch one of the kids, and then things get very interesting VERY quickly.

There are a lot of things to like about Attack the Block, honestly.  I think the most impressive thing is the fact that writer/director Joe Cornish has crafted a film that definitely is influenced by films like Attack on Precinct 13, The Fog, The People Under the Stairs, and even the urban feel of Candyman all while making a film that is different and unique without being just a rehash of other movies.  Like Assault on Precinct 13, the film features a cast made up mostly of unknown actors outside of Nick Frost, who puts in a great performance as Ron.  Had Cornish and his team not cast a team of solid young actors, this movie would’ve fallen apart from the beginning.  Since you don’t know these actors/characters at all, you are unsure of them at the beginning, but you begin to relate to these hoodlums the more they transform from a loose group of kids up to no good into a tight-knit group of friends who will do anything for each other.

The standout performance comes from John Boyega as Moses, the leader of this particular ragtag group of micreants.  The film wouldn’t have suffered terribly had Moses been played merely by a servicable actor, but Boyega’s acting also makes this film a bit of a coming of age story.  Boyega becomes increasingly riveting as the film goes on and Moses transforms from just another street thug into a man ready to face the consequences of his actions at the end of the film.  He brought enough nuance that you almost don’t notice the transformation because of just how naturally Moses matures.  Everyone is solid in this film, but Boyega is definitely one of the biggest highlights of the film.

When you get a cast this solid together, you need to have an equal opponent, and the aliens in this movie prove to be more than up to the task.  This is an area where the filmmakers took advantage of a lower budget.  Creature effects have always been by default been an area that will make or break a movie.  Make the creatures too elaborate and they dominate the film and it suddenly becomes a glorified tech demo.  Skimp too much and there’s no way your audience will take you seriously.  The GWMF’s (Gorilla-Wolf-Mother-Effers, as the film refers to them quite often) are pitch perfect for this movie.  Humanity has always been scared of what it can’t see or understand.  A fully detailed and elaborate alien is scary enough, but make a creature that your brain can’t process completely except for its teeth when it’s standing right in front of you, and you’ve got something truly terrifying.  I don’t know how much of the creature work was practical or CG, but the team that brought these things to life deserves some serious props.

Back to the films influences, there are scenes in the film that no doubt borrow from other films, but effectively use the chosen gimmick and make it the film’s own.  The scenes in the smokey hallways after fireworks have been set off are used to remarkable effect and make you feel like you’re in The Fog.  I mentioned the synth score at the beginning of my review that is eerily reminiscent of the scores Carpenter used in the 80’s, and it shows up here and there, but morphs into modern hip hop.  My point is that this movie doesn’t shy away from its influences, and it doesn’t make these nods a giant wink at the audience.  It takes inspiration from the past and remakes it into something entirely new.

If I have one single criticism of the film, it’s the copious use of the fact that this movie is brought to you by the producers of Shaun of the Dead.  This is because while it definitely generates interest in the film, there is also the huge potential to set up the wrong expectations.  There are big laughs to be had for sure, but you are certain to be disappointed if you’re expecting this to be a comedy.  Make no mistake, Attack the Block is a sci-fi survival monster movie at its core.  It uses humor and big laughs as a mechanism to release tension throughout, which helps make this such a fun monster movie, but it isn’t the focus at all.

If what I’ve written about even remotely piques your interest, you need to see this movie.  It’s such a unique film the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time and might not see again for a long time that you seriously need to take advantage of catching this if you can.  As of right now, I believe the film may be releasing in August, but I can tell you right now that I seriously want to see this movie again more than coming blockbusters like Captain America, X-Men: First Class or Green Lantern.  There’s a reason why people like Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have been extolling the virtues of Joe Cornish for years.  In his first feature film, he’s already proven himself to be the real deal and definitely a director to keep an eye on.

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