Attack the Block (2011, Joe Cornish)

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Certain films are cult product by design, indeed to such a degree that it would seem hard to imagine their creators disappointed at such a fate — they are the eccentric but certain-crowd-pleasing genre pictures that generate small armies of the devoted willing to memorize them, quote them, generate a limitless array of animated gifs from them. The movies of Edgar Wright certainly qualify, as must nearly any comedy project that blends genres together, and the directorial debut of his occasional collaborator Joe Cornish, Attack the Block, is textbook: a deftly written and shot modern British monster movie with strong science fiction elements, one that goes for character and suspense over constant exposition and explosion, it’s not just a film that yearns only for the audience that will inevitably hear of it and seek it out, it’s a film that reflects sufficient intelligence to become about as good and well-considered as modern genre pictures get.

As in so many sci-fi films, especially those that trade on alien-invasion ideas that have been explored hundreds of times, its basic story is a little thin when you think about it; not much happens that isn’t obvious from the get. Everything that matters about Block is in its details and execution. So yes, several boys living in a housing project in the south of London are interrupted while mugging a woman (Jodie Whittaker) by the eruptive crash of a meteroite just next to them, which turns out to be, in fact, an alien’s cocoon. The alien is quickly killed and taken to (of course) a marijuana greenhouse in an upper-floor apartment, but it’s quickly followed by others, and the gang of boys led by John Boyega’s complex, conflicted Moses set out to thwart what appears to be an attempted colonization. It’s comic book, and the unsubtle, wildly silly special effects keep us firmly in B-movie territory. But it’s also compelling, slightly funny (Nick Frost shows up as a stoner character, even), and impressively low-key given its premise.

A pity that it also is, alas, such a boy-movie. Whittaker’s Samantha is top-billed, a local nurse who opens the film by being attacked and eventually has her apartment invaded by the gang of roving children — in search of help for an injured chum — only to then join up with them. It’s an overfamiliar victim-to-enabler cycle, and it’s hard to wash the film’s lighthearted tone or serious sense of human compassion with the way it begins so flippantly depicting such a trauma. Doesn’t help that Whittaker’s performance itself is bland and empty compared to what Boyega, Franz Drameh, Alex Esmail, and Leeon Jones are able to do with their characters. Samantha never becomes part of the gang, she’s just “the girl” — scared, cheering. On top of that problem, the best scene in the entire film has the gang meeting up with a crew of neighborhood women with strong personalities and a lot to say about the goings-on; their chemistry among one another and with the main cast is considerable. And yet rather than take the exciting maneuver of having the entire group continue on with the adventure, we’re disappointed when this turns out to just be an outlying moment; it’s very much a missed opportunity.

However, given the film’s pedigree (sharing a production lineage with Shaun of the Dead and its followups), it must be noted that I prefer this by a considerable margin to any of Edgar Wright’s films. Its stylistic choices are subtler, craftier, its writing and humor more nuanced. The political subtext and sense of a certain kind of troubled childhood in Block is surprisingly strong — like La Haine crossed with Super 8 — while the camaraderie between the characters seems strikingly real and organic. Openly dumb as the alien-monsters story is, at least it’s approached in an unusually natural and undramatic but not overly silly manner. The genre elements don’t seem shoehorned the way they do in Shaun or The World’s End.

The 88-minute length helps immeasurably to keep our time with the characters from seeming labored, and keeps the things that the movie really wants to talk about — race and class particularly — as lingering undercurrents, the arc of the characters streamlined but sophisticated. The concentration on character, even with all of the other mad business of the chase and the big sci-fi reveal (which is handled far more elegantly than in Super 8), pays off when Moses has his belaguered, ride-off-into-the-sunset moment in the back of a cop car, with the entire stricken neighborhood cheering him on. We want to cheer as well.

It’s a lot of very frenetically paced fun; Cornish in fact outpaces his own script visually and seems an inventive, agile, even seasoned filmmaker already. The way the camera roves in and out of rooms and along the street reminds me of Michel Gondry’s video for Massive Attack’s “Protection,” and (this is a tad more eccentric) the title sequence of one of my favorite, long-championed films that no one else likes, Brain Candy. It’s easy to see what would keep people coming back to Attack the Block, to want to engage with its characters and their varied, subtle arcs and uncover more of the plot underneath the plot, a feature of most of the best cult movies. This then becomes quite a rarity for me — a pure genre picture I actually enjoyed and engaged with.

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