Guest Post: Attack the Block (2011)

by George Watches Things

This post is from Rohan Berry Crickmar, a very skilled writer who can be read at berryapercu.wordpress.com.

Dir:- Joe Cornish

Starr:- John Boyega, Alex Esmail, Jodie Whittaker, Luke Treadaway, Nick Frost

In amongst all the grandiose pronouncements that filmmakers tend to make it is rare to hear too much discussion of film as an entertainment, save amongst those individuals who are fronting up the marketing arms of the major Hollywoodstudios. Increasingly cinema is being treated as a box of pyrotechnic tricks, supposedly for the benefit of the hard-to-please modern teen (where do these demographics exist in reality?), or as a place in which a visual ‘artist’ can express themselves in all of their pompous, self-righteous and utterly incoherent glory, to the sound of cash registers remaining firmly shut. When your average multiplex choice boils down to an utterly unnecessary Fright Night remake, the latest Piranhas-derivative Shark Night (in 3D, of course), or a trawl through the vacuous portentousness of Lars Von Trier’s rectum (aka Melancholia), then what hope is there for the continuance of cinema as a viable medium of entertainment in the 21st century?

For any British filmgoer the moribund state of the domestic industry has long ago adjusted local tastes to the staple diets of Hollywood populism (the cinematic equivalent of fast-food) and the Eurocentric concerns of ‘Art’ cinema (something like as appetising and filling as nouvelle cuisine, all presentation but little substance). The British film industry is nothing more than a Yeti, infrequently mentioned (and occasionally sighted) by the clearly mentally deranged, thus endowing it with a certain mythic status, that not even the likes of Carol Reed, Michael Powell, David Lean and Mike Leigh can wholly justify. For the best part of a decade British film has plundered the literary corpus of one J.K. Rowling for the glorious riches her young wizard doth bestow, papering over the fact that most of the money was stumped up by American/Japanese investment concerns and Hollywood studios. Now that Harry is dead and gone, where is the money to be had and where, oh where, is the entertainment to be found?

Step forward Joe Cornish, forty-something comedian, performer and writer, who formed one half of the Adam & Joe Show. It is not hyperbole to suggest that Cornish is the saviour-hero of British film, not to mention the very idea of entertaining and inventive horror. Taking a little from the likes of John Sayles and Sam Raimi, Cornish has crafted a fantastically inventive horror-comedy, that devotes equal attention to both those elements and frequently confounds what can be expected of a British film on a shoestring budget. Back in his Adam & Joe heyday at the end of the nineties, Cornish frequently exhibited a geekish interest in science fiction and horror cinema, akin to peers such as Simon Pegg and Mark Gatiss. Now with his feature directorial debut much of that obsessive knowledge of the mechanics of genre cinema, in particular the way in which editing processes help to inform and give shape to both the comic and the horrific, is put to good use.

Attack the Block is a horror-comedy set on a South London council estate, which is all angular walkways, grim tower blocks and graffiti emblazoned lock-ups. At the centre of the plot are the residents of one particular block on the estate, mainly a group of hoodied multiracial teens, as well as their various broken families, a young recently qualified nurse, a nature-loving drug-dealer and a posh student pot-head. The movie opens with the gang, lead by Moses (an exceptional performance from newcomer John Boyega), attempting to mug the young nurse, played by Jodie Whittaker. As the kids intimidate her possessions from her an object falls out of the sky and crashes through a nearby parked car. In the mayhem the nurse manages to escape, whilst the arrogantly bold and territorial teenagers investigate the cause of the ruckus. It turns out that some creature has crash-landed on earth and the teenagers quickly decide to hunt the thing down and dish out their own punishment. Returning to the ‘Block’ the teens want to show their curious find to the local drug-dealer (played by Nick Frost), as well as hoping to impressive the local gang muscle Hi-Hatz (played by Jumayn Hunter). However, things quickly go awry when more of the creatures begin to show up, bigger, stronger and far more interested in getting revenge.

It seems appropriate that a cheeky character like Pest (an endearing turn by Alex Esmail) at one point tells Jodie Whittaker’s nurse “You’d be better off calling the Ghostbusters luv”, as Attack the Block has much of the same gleeful and exuberant comic energy about it. The fact that the glow-in-the-dark creatures are so obviously cheaply realised, just adds a little of the charm of wonderfully daft 80’s creature-features like Gremlins, or Alligator, to proceedings. The minimalism of both time and setting (one tower block, on one night) harks back to John Carpenter in his pomp, with much of the action playing out like a ‘knowing’ variant on the classic Assault on Precinct 13. The social satire that buoys much of the comedy throughout the movie has a bit of the sharpness and wit of John Sayles’ The Brother From Another Planet and despite some initially lazy ‘stereotyping’, does a good job of subverting those stereotypes (particular Treadaway’s posh student wigga and Esmail’s gobby, wisecracker).

What is most remarkable about this movie is the way in which it seamlessly navigates between the comic and the horrific. Having just been overrun by great big hulking alien monsters, the gang manage to repel them, killing one, and the first thing that one of the characters thinks of is that the alien is “blacker than my cousin Femi”. Cornish has been savvy enough to use the opening of the film to establish the streetwise credentials of this group of would-be hoods and this pays off with a degree of authenticity in the dialogue, that other films of a similar ilk (Shaun of the Dead, for example) wouldn’t have been able to mine. To accentuate just how much Cornish achieves here, he actually manages to make the cartoonish shenanigans of his gang of youths far more plausible than Menhaj Huda’s ponderously po-faced ‘keeping it real’ Kidulthood.

In another sequence toward the climax of the movie, Cornish resorts to a bit of claustrophobic and disorienting fog-machine usage to maximise both the tension and the horror of the moment. It is this technical ingenuity in the staging of scenes that makes the whole film seem far more slickly produced than its humble budget would otherwise indicate. It serves as an indicator of what a little ambition, imagination and a good script can achieve, with or without Hollywood. Ultimately this isn’t a movie that is attempting to dissect the social inequalities of inner-city England, but is rather a highly enjoyable and entertaining film, that doesn’t hold back on the gore, or the sick humour. Oddly enough that makes it a far more appealing movie for the diversionary pleasures of the cinema and for that alone it is well worth going along to see.

Rating:- ***1/2

Notes:-

  • Amongst the many priceless nuggets of diaogue, Nick Frost’s summation of the alien as something that “smells like a shit that did a shit”, and Pest’s exclamation that “It’s raining golems”, are truly magnificent.
  • The kitting up sequence is exquisitely rendered, with Pest once again proving fantastic in the way he hoodwinks a baseball bat past his grandmother.
  • Despite being a fun and enjoyable movie, this isn’t for the faint-hearted and might be a bit strong for young children.
  • The movie got a bit of free publicity on its UK release as the London riots were still newsworthy, making the feature seem slightly prophetic in its depiction of alienated, but tight-knit inner-city communities.
  • If you like this you might also want to watch The Brother From Another Planet, Gremlins or Four Lions.
  • Coming soon: reviews from The Movie Blogger (George/the person who runs this blog) on Red State and A Little Help, plus the results of our 70s vote. Stay tuned!