Sunday, August 7, 2011

Attack the Block

(2011) Directed by; Written and Directed by Joe Cornish; Starring: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail and Nick Frost; Available formats: N/A

Rating: ****

It’s axiomatic that the summer movie season will be chock full of overblown predictable audience pleasers, unnecessary sequels and crushing disappointments.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I actually enjoy watching some of the films from the first category, as long as they’re sufficiently entertaining and push the right buttons.  On the other hand, the movies that I often look forward to the most are the ones that I didn’t know were coming in the first place.  These are the movies that sneak out of nowhere, beneath the radar, without the benefit of a multi-million dollar media blitz.  One such example is the recent release Attack the Block, the feature film debut by Joe Cornish.

Most of the action takes place in and around a low-income tenement building in a predominantly black South London neighborhood.  Sam, a young nurse (played by Jodie Whittaker), is mugged by several teenagers while walking home.  But this is not a typical night on the wrong side of the tracks.  Believe it or not, these same youths will become the protagonists.  Before long, a chain of unforeseen events will force their lives to become intertwined with Sam’s as they face a common enemy.  Adversity makes strange bedfellows.

Something streaks out of the sky and smashes into a car.  When the teens investigate the vehicle’s interior, looking for valuables, something leaps out and scratches their leader’s face.  He decides to pursue and kill the creature, but their troubles are just beginning.  It was the first, but not the last of the invaders, with bigger and badder nasties just lurking around the corner.

John Boyega plays Moses, the leader of the gang of teenagers who mugged Sam.  Boyega endows his role with great complexity.  Still waters run deep.  He’s not big on words, but you can see the wheels turning in his head.  He never smiles or cracks jokes like his cohorts, because his current life seems too much to bear.  He’s looking for a way out, but stuck in circumstances beyond his control or inclination to change.  One of the characters comments that trouble follows him everywhere.  This certainly seems to be true from a metaphorical sense, and in reality.  As the situation quickly escalates, he realizes that he should have stayed home and played his Xbox.  He isn’t particularly likable at the beginning, but as his character unfolds, we begin to appreciate him.

Attack the Block goes beyond the normal stereotypes with regard to Moses and his friends.  Cornish spends a lot of time with these inner city kids, when most films would have relegated them to supporting roles or comic relief.  Similar to Moses, his cohorts aren’t initially likable or sympathetic.  The teens are street smart, but scared in the face of uncertainty, lending credibility to their characters.  They’re a close-knit group, bound together by a general air of desperation and aimlessness.  Thanks to Ron (Nick Frost) and his weed room, a steady supply of pot is in plentiful supply.  Self-medication seems to be de rigueur for all concerned. 

Speaking of Frost (who often appears in films with his counterpart, Simon Pegg), you would be led to believe by the trailers and ads for Attack the Block that he has a more prominent role in the film.  His character is funny, but not really essential to the rest of the story.  It’s more likely that his name was used as a bargaining chip to sell the picture, since the rest of the cast is comprised of unknowns.  He certainly lends some weight (pun unintended) to the proceedings, but it’s the newcomer, Boyega, who’s the real star.

(Minor spoiler alert!) Since this is an alien invasion movie after all, the other unsung stars of the show are the sightless creatures, which resemble a furry black amalgamation of a dog, bear and gorilla, with luminous sharp teeth.  I’m not sure what the evolutionary advantage is for blind creatures with glowing teeth, but it sure looks cool.  The effects work relies heavily on good old man-in-suit costumes, with CGI taking a back seat.  The script doesn’t spend a lot of time speculating about how the creatures got there, but that’s not really the point.  The main focus is on how the characters band together to deal with the invaders, utilizing whatever means they have at their disposal to fend off the threat to their turf.

The weakest element of Attack the Block is the local drug kingpin Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), who doggedly pursues Moses after a misunderstanding.  He seems oblivious to the rest of the chaos that’s going on around him, viewing Moses as a potential threat to his dominance on the block.  Compared to the rest of the story, his inclusion seems a little heavy handed.  Cornish tries a bit too hard to blend cultural significance into the mix, when the overall narrative could have been a little tighter without this subplot.  Even without Hi-Hatz, much of the social commentary would have remained intact. It’s fairly clear that Moses and most of his friends don’t have a lot of choices.  Even in 21st century society, there are double standards for whites and blacks.  Calling the authorities doesn’t amount to the same thing when you’re instantly suspect.  In this neighborhood, matters (including alien invasions) need to be taken into the residents’ own hands. 

So what exactly does this film have to say about racial tensions?  Well, this isn’t exactly Do The Right Thing with aliens.  At its heart, Attack the Block is a rollicking good sci-fi action movie with a dash of comedy and a smidgen of social commentary.  Don’t expect to write your master’s thesis about the socioeconomic dichotomy in South London, based solely on this film.  Just sit down, turn your brain off, and have a good time.  Or as the character Moses would likely say, “Allow it.”

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