Sunday, September 18, 2011

Attack the Block

Aliens, innit? 

I can't deny I've become increasingly cynical towards genre films over the last year or two. I'm always up for something entertaining, but at the risk of sounding terribly elitist, less and less is able to provide those 'turn off your brain' kicks. There are quite a few, for sure: Serenity, Star Trek, Super 8 and other films that may or may not begin with the letter 'S'. But they seem increasingly rare. Maybe I'm just odd, but having heard many announce the IMO merely decent Rise of the Planet of the Apes as film of the year (seriously?) I often wonder if I should lower my standards.

Before I consider that radical solution, I'm glad to add Attack the Block to the realms of superior fun. It sounds like it shouldn't work: I'm not a massive fan of director Joe Cornish's comedy output with cohort Adam Buxton, and the concept of an alien invasion film set in inner city London isn't the most inspiring of setups (and, post 28 Days Later / Shaun of the Dead, not entirely original). But, against the odds, it works.

We begin with a mugging, as you do. It's Guy Fawkes night, and Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is robbed at knife point by a group of five hooded teens led by Moses (John Boyega). Sam manages to escape when an extraterrestial object blows up a nearby car. The teens, though, decide to check out the wreckage. Out pops a wee but aggressive alien, who proceeds to maul Moses. Angered, the kids decide to kick the shit out of it. Cue one dead alien. They haul the corpse back to their apartment block as a trophy. But they soon regret it. Soon, more aggressive alien things arrive in the area, and they seem to have their eyes (well, they don't technically have eyes) on Moses and co. Not helping matters are the police and a disgruntled drug dealer (Jumayn Hunter). So the kids arm up, reluctantly team up with a disgruntled Sam, and set out to kick more alien ass.

There's a few chuckles in Attack the Block, but for the most part Cornish plays it straight. This is a good thing. The result are some superb performances, clever aesthetics and setpieces that drip with tension. The design of the aliens is magnificent - pitch black, featureless fur with glowing blue neon teeth. The result are creatures that aren't invisible, but all the more terrifying when you see those glowing fangs in the distance. The memorable aliens are a stark contrast to the over-thought monstrosities that unconvinced in Cloverfield and Super 8 - CGI used thoughtfully, for a change. Setpieces are largely relegated to the 'block', but full of visual invention. A bike/scooter chase, a smoky corridor, cramped apartments - Cornish gets the most out of his setting, and creates a monster film that's terrifically tense and engaging in the process. I'll admit that it's a little convenient the teens have access to a samurai sword alongside the more credible likes of fireworks, kitchen knives and baseball bats, but we'll let them away with it given the badassery that ensues.

Kudos must be given to the main actors, who do an absolutely terrific job. It's a hard sell when we're introduced to our slang-hurling protagonists as they mug an innocent civilian. But the five of 'em - Boyega,  Franz Drameh,  Leeon Jones,  Alex Esmail and Simon Howard - do a fine job. The fear is they'll be your typical hooded ne'er-do-wells, but aside from the occasional moment of indecipherable slang they all have a distinctly unique character. They're written and directed affectionately rather than critically. When the danger level predictably increases, you'll be hard pressed not to be rooting for 'em, and Cornish isn't a director who gives all of them easy passes. Whittaker is grand as the token female, although I'll admit Nick Frost and Luke Treadaway could easily have been excised from their supporting roles without a major impact to the plot one way or t'other. Even at a running time that barely passes the eighty minute mark, their roles feel like unnecessary fluff, especially Frost who is clearly present to add a marquee name.

Cornish never strays far from genre tropes here, which some may consider a bad thing (for all the positive feedback this film has received, there's also been quite a bit of negativity). But he quietly subverts as he goes along. A particularly nice touch was bringing the old 'phone out of battery' cliche into the modern world with characters who run out of credit. The film is short of social commentary considering the setting, but there are a few clever digs along the way - one of the teens Pest wryly comments on how violent video games and rap music are definitely not responsible for their new found action hero status. The film doesn't judge, and doesn't condescend. The backgrounds of the characters are carefully, ambiguously referenced in an excitingly edited sequence where all the kids return home to arm up: there are no in-your-face attempts to explain their delinquency. The setting feels honest and realistic as a result. Well, as realistic as you can get when a bunch of kids are fighting off glowing aliens.

Add an energetic score from Steven Price (with contributions from the likes of Massive Attack) and you have the makings of a great contemporary alien invasion flick. There are problems: the aforementioned slang, a sometimes distracting fondness for name-checking pop culture, some redundant subplots and characters. And I was a tiny bit uncomfortable with the fact that, for a film with an admirably mature approach to race, all the white characters get off a little too easy. But otherwise Attack the Block moves along at a frantic, involving pace from beginning to end. It's well directed, well acted and well intentioned. Most of all it's fun. And when you're dealing with a film like this, isn't that all that really matters?

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