Movie Mondays #5: Attack the Block

As part of our Ultimate Playbill project, each week a faculty member will take the time to extol the virtues of one of the beloved films on this list. This week, I go for tyrannofloresrex’s 4th pick, Attack the Block.

Attack the Block flew under the radar in 2011. In a just world this film would have exploded like Block producer Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead did back in 2004. Thankfully the film was enough of a success to launch the careers of director Joe Cornish as well as future Star Wars star John Boyega.

A subversive science fiction film with a simple enough premise, Attack the Block is a film that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is rare for a directorial debut to have so much personal style, but Cornish is as confident as co-writer Wright was and has continued to be throughout his career. Right now Cornish is the writer and director attached to an adaptation of Neal Stephenson’s 1991 classic novel Snow Crash, and his name is one of very few that would inspire confidence in such an ambitious project.

Cornish shows he knows how to direct young black heroes with Samurai swords.

Attack the Block specializes in something that is far too uncommon in science fiction, it humanizes every character, and spreads its comedy, drama, and character development evenly among its talented young cast. All too often science fiction films designate a character as the “funny” one, or the “one with a tragic history,” a technique which allows viewers to notice patterns they’ve seen before, absolving what surprise or suspense they might have had if the characters each seemed like potential protagonists.

The film also uses an effective balance of practical and computer generated special effects. The black, almost negative space look of the aliens makes their CG mouths the only element that needs detailed animation. When the aliens are seen up close, puppets and detailed practical effects are used. This is the same technique employed by Jurassic Park almost 20 years earlier, but which has also become uncommon in the world of science fiction.

Jumayn Hunter’s Hy-hatz is an aspiring rapper with a taste for fashion.

The puppets are frightening, resembling both the Xenomorphs of Alien, and the sewer creature from Big Trouble in Little China. They tear people apart with their glow-in-the-dark fangs. One particularly gruesome death involves a face being separated from it’s skull while screaming in agony. It’s nice when a film isn’t afraid to be horrifying and funny just moments apart, not making the violence a joke, but juxtaposing two tones to help place the viewer in the exasperated and desperate head-space of the protagonists.

Attack the Block also wastes no time getting started. Within the first 15 minutes of the film it introduces all of its main players, subverts the viewer’s expectation by following the teenage bandits that harass the attractive woman in the opening scene, and features a promising and charming appearance of Nick Frost’s drug dealer character, Ron. One of the best things about the film is its cast, so introducing everyone early as well as establishing the danger of the aliens is crucial.

The aliens get a taste for human blood early.

John Boyega’s Moses exudes a confidence that is practically a must with science fiction main characters. What sets this hero apart though is that he isn’t a beacon of morality, as he’s introduced robbing a woman and threatening her with a knife, but when called upon to lead his people in a deadly conflict with an unknown enemy, he steps up.

Another successful feature of the film is the mortality of its characters. Similar to this year’s Green Room, Joe Cornish’s film isn’t afraid to do serious damage to its leads. Any film can kill a beloved character in a climactic moment, but not many will maim a star while still in the first act. Attack the Block’s clowns, played by Nick Frost and Luke Treadaway, undercut the severe tension between both the humans and aliens, as well as the block teens and Jodie Whittaker’s Sam, who continues to be harassed by the main characters well into the film’s second act when the two sides come together in the spirit of survival.

Ron and Brewis emulate the viewer’s awe at Swedish effects house Fido’s creations.

Overall Attack the Block is an ambitious film that succeeds in most of what it attempts. While it might not have the philosophical pondering of a true science fiction classic, Joe Cornish’s film stands among the best in the adventure sub-genre of science fiction, a personal favorite of mine. Finally, I’ve always felt that wearing one’s influences on their sleeve is an honest trait in art, and numerous homages to Spielberg, John Carpenter, and Edgar Wright make Attack the Block a delightful ride for movie lovers who feel the same way.

P.S. this film made the list when tyrannofloresrex swapped 13 Assassins out for it, while I don’t think Attack the Block is quite as good of a film as Takashi Miike’s chanbara epic, I think it belongs on this list as a prime example of science fiction in the 21st century.