Review: "Attack the Block" - inner city vs. outer space

By: Heather Seebach

Eighties babies like me have been anxiously awaiting J.J. Abrams Super 8 with hope that it will recapture the feeling we got watching films like The Goonies or E.T. – movies wherein kids ran the show and thwarted danger without any help from their clueless parents. Little did we know that such a film has already landed in the U.K. - Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block. Like a faster-paced, gorier cousin to Super 8, this British sci-fi film pits violent youths against vicious extraterrestrials in an urban South London setting. Despite its hard edges, Block evokes the same feeling of childhood adventure and danger captured in all those Spielbergian 80s flicks. It also recalls horror films from that era, such as Gremlins or Critters. What more could one ask for?

Moses (John Boyega) leads a gang of teenagers who get their kicks mugging helpless adults. When his crew encounters an alien creature that has fallen to Earth, they kill the beast and drag it about town like a trophy. This does not seem to please the other aliens, as the giant, black-haired creatures then arrive on the planet in droves with their appetites set on Moses & company. While on the run from killer aliens, the kids inadvertently team up with a stoner (Luke Treadaway), a pot dealer (Nick Frost), and a lady they mugged (Jodie Whittaker).

So, yes, the film has adults, but they are constantly out-shined by the child actors, including Boyega, Franz Drameh, Leeon Jones, Simon Howard, and Alex Esmail. All are relative unknowns but they carry the film with ease. Together, these kids rule “the block” and that includes fending off any nasty alien intruders. Boyega in particular exudes a strong presence as the troubled gang leader who struggles to maintain control without his guilt for the people he’s hurt getting in the way. This is not just some punk kid – he is a character with genuine layers, which are especially evident in his scenes with the mugging victim played by Whittaker.

Through Moses and the other kids, we see the vulnerability and innocence hidden behind these chavs’ harsh exteriors. The violent tendencies of these inner city youths are never sugar-coated, but through this sci-fi romp, we also get a sense of writer/director Cornish’s socio-political commentary on the state of crime and youth in London. It is never overbearing or distracting - just an inevitable and truthful footnote in an otherwise fun flick.

Speaking of chavs, some people have worried that the thick South London accents and slang would not translate well in the United States. Having seen the film in a Maryland cinema, I can assure you that everybody understood the kids’ dialogue fine and rarely missed a joke. Hell, sometimes the audience was laughing at something I did not make out – and I’ve watched (and understood) Trainspotting, Nil by Mouth, and the Red Riding Trilogy! Once the film gets going, Americans should have no problem keeping up.

So, how do the aliens look? Simple but damn effective. And best of all, the film relies largely on practical effects – that is, men in suits. Of course, there is some CGI enhancement but it never looks cheap. The bloody stuff is also practical and occasionally quite graphic (get excited, gore-hounds). Cornish manages to perfectly balance this level of violence with a kid-centric storyline. The man definitely has skills behind the camera and I am eager to see what he does next. The film is packed with exciting action sequences, backed to perfection by Basement Jaxx’s hip-hop score.

Joe Cornish has long been associated with friend and Attack the Block producer Edgar Wright, but with his debut feature, he has officially distinguished himself. There is no reliance on Wright’s visual style or humor here. Cornish has delivered something entirely his own, and it is destined to be a cult classic worthy of repeat viewings and midnight screenings for years to come – that is, once Sony Pictures gets off their asses and gives the film a proper stateside release!

 out of 5

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