United Kingdom. Directed by Joe Cornish, 2013. Starring John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail. 88 minutes.
Bonfire Night in the South London district of Brixton. Nurse Samantha Adams (Jodie Whittaker), returning to her home in the Wyndham Estates council block, encounters a group of five local youths. The gang, led by Moses (John Boyega), attempts to mug Sam, but she escapes when a meteorite strikes a nearby car. As the kids investigate, some sort of large, wild animal attacks and injures Moses; it runs away, but Moses and his friends give chase.
They run it to ground and discover that the animal isn’t like anything seen on Earth: pale and hairless, with bioluminescent jaws. Moses makes quick work of the monster. The kids, hoping to get rich and famous off their adventure, take the corpse to local weed dealer Ron (Nick Frost) for safekeeping.
More meteorites rain down on the neighborhood; the kids arm themselves and go in search of more alien monsters to fight. But these “alien gorilla-wolf motherfuckers” are larger and tougher than the first, and don’t go down so easily. More complications arise. The police (having been called by Sam) arrive at the block, seeking to arrest the youths. Attempting to flee the monsters, Moses and his friends run afoul of the block’s drug kingpin, Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter).
More and more monsters descend upon the block, the kids must enter into an uneasy alliance with their erstwhile victim Sam if they expect to evade both Hi-Hatz and the coppers while fending off the alien invaders. The fate of the Wyndham Estates rests entirely with five tough inner-city kids, armed only with baseball bats and knives.
Action-horror hybrids tend to work best by subverting action tropes. The two examples I always use are Aliens, in which all the film’s toughest characters (save one) die in a single scene, and Predator, where a stroke of dumb luck allows Dutch to avoid meeting the same fates as his fellow soldiers.
Attack the Block, the début directorial effort from British comic actor Joe Cornish, is the modern equivalent of Alien and Predator in this sense. Moses and his mates might think themselves tough guys, and put into the context of the Wyndham Estates, they probably are. They certainly scare white ladies like Sam.
But Cornish consistently reminds us that they are also kids, and their desperation shows. Their mums call them on their mobile phones, and none can afford unlimited voice or data plans. They zoom around the grounds on scooters and bicycles; they steal a car, but don’t have drivers’ licenses. Their weapons are mêlée weapons, and even the most impressive one–a katana–is a display piece, not actually meant for real combat. Only the grown-ups, like Hi-Hatz, carry guns. When Moses tells Sam he’s fifteen years old, it’s meant as a big revelation–but, truth be told, while he certainly looks older than that, the context of the film doesn’t tell us he’s much older.
Of course, deceptive appearances also work the other way round. The gang marks Sam as a target because they figure she’s posh; little do they realize she’s one of their neighbors. This serves as part of the film’s social commentary, which, for the most part, is very subtle, coming to the fore only in a couple of instances. At one point, Moses theorizes that the powers-that-be “bred those things to kill black boys.” Just as telling is Pest’s (Alex Esmail) criticism of Sam’s absent boyfriend, working for the Red Cross in Ghana. “Why can’t he help children in Britain?” Pest asks her. “Not exotic enough, is it? Don’t get a nice suntan?”
Cornish bulks up his setting and themes by applying memorable dialogue seasoned with authentic (or at least authentic-seeming) British urban slang; non-native speakers might have to consult the Urban Dictionary to understand terms like “wagwan bruv.” This also strengthens characterization, and each faction of characters has its own particular dialect. Compare the kids’ language to that of working-class white girl Sam, Ron the dealer who smokes a bit too much of his own stash, or Brewis (Luke Treadaway), a “profoundly stoned” slumming uni student. And let’s not forget Probs and Mayhem, the pint-size gangstas in training.
Of course, such dialogue requires a great cast to make it work, and a great cast is what this film has. Boyega is the film’s breakout performer; he emits charisma like light from a bulb. The other gang members–Esmail, Howard, Leeon Jones and Franz Drameh–each get several moments of greatness, as does Whittaker. Frost (the closest the film has to a big name), Treadaway and Hunter steal every scene they’re in.
The film’s direction is superb, with plenty of exciting and clever action sequences. The film cost a relatively modest $13 million to make but looks like it could have been five or six times more expensive. The cinematography and editing transform a series of disparate locations into the Wyndham Estates. As for the monsters, their design is delightful, the effects work solid and Cornish wisely keeps them in shadow or darkness for most of the film. Comparative newcomer Steven Price supplies a terrific score and the soundtrack features a new song from Basement Jaxx alongside some modern hip-hop and reggae classics.
Attack the Block is exhilarating, thrilling, hilarious and frightening–everything you could want from either a modern horror movie or a modern action movie. With its infectiously quotable dialogue, well-drawn characters and vivid setting, it’s destined to become a cult classic–if it hasn’t already.