Film review: Attack the Block
Joe Cornish’s uproarious aliens-versus-hoodies feature debut has street smarts to match its movie smarts, says Michael Brooke
Joe Cornish first made his name as co-presenter (with Adam Buxton) of Channel 4’s The Adam and Joe Show (1996-2001), fondly remembered for re-enacting big-screen blockbusters with the aid of cuddly toys. Although technically far slicker and entirely live-action, his uproarious aliens-versus-hoodies feature debut Attack the Block betrays a similarly encyclopaedic genre knowledge, especially the Roger Corman-influenced films of the 1970s and 1980s that never allowed their high IQs and sociopolitical awareness to breach the fundamental requirement that they move like electrified greyhounds, preferably clocking in at under 90 minutes to facilitate drive-in double-billing.
Accordingly, Attack the Block’s premise about an alien invasion and the ensuing siege of a single South London housing estate has umpteen nods to John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Escape from New York (1981) and The Thing (1982), Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) and Streets of Fire (1984), Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) and the John Sayles-scripted Piranha (1978) and Alligator (1980), with a dash of French cinéma du look (Diva, 1981; Subway, 1985) and a Children’s Film Foundation romp thrown in for good measure. However, Cornish never falls into the trap of creating gags around lazy name-checks, a fault that marred executive producer Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007) by ensuring that disbelief could never be completely suspended.
Here the milieu is wholly convincing. The ‘block’, the fictional Wyndham Tower estate, hosts not just the film’s hoodie protagonists but also their families (their higher-achieving female siblings being one of many passing nods to current sociological debates), to whom they have to make implausible excuses for staying out late. The mid-teenage gang members are viewed with suspicion by actual gangster Hi-Hatz but with admiration by nine-year-old wannabes Gavin and Reginald. ‘Mayhem’ and ‘Probs’, as they style themselves, have the excuse of extreme youth, whereas affluent white dopehead Brewis’s attempts at blending in (“primatology, mammatology, all that shizzle”) attract derision from everybody except his dealer Ron (Nick Frost), who would regard even the outbreak of World War III with amiably befuddled equanimity.
Cornish draws superb performances out of his inexperienced central quintet, especially John Boyega (taciturn Moses) and Alex Esmail (livewire Pest). Their knifepoint mugging of trainee nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) risks audience alienation at the start, but likeable personalities quickly assert themselves with the aid of pungently witty dialogue (which Cornish developed with the cast and extensive pre-production research in local youth clubs) and the unsurprising revelation that their apparent menace is based more on bravado than being genuine hard cases like Hi-Hatz. But there’s also justified resentment about the cards dealt them in life, expressed generally through a longstanding (and mutual) hatred of the police, and directly through Moses’s paranoid speculation that the alien invasion might have been government-sanctioned as part of a plan to wipe out London’s black population.
In common with its models, the film favours old-fashioned mechanical special effects to create the “big alien gorilla-wolf motherfuckers” around whose invasion the plot revolves. These inspired combinations of shaggy black fur, glowing green fangs and lolloping gait are simultaneously menacing and strangely beautiful, especially in a slow-motion shot of a group of them chasing a sword-wielding Moses down a corridor. Cinematographer Tom Townend turns exclusively nocturnal locations into a riot of neon-drenched colour reminiscent of Andrew Laszlo’s work for Walter Hill, while the electronic throb of Steven Price’s score betrays an unmistakable John Carpenter influence.
Films this cine-literate are rarely this unpretentiously enjoyable, but it’s easy to see why it brought the house down at its South by Southwest festival premiere – even with people who struggled with some heroically uncompromising accents.
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