Attack the Block (review)

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Attack the Block

Love-Hate the Alien

Take that, Spielberg, with your suburban alien invasions and your gentle parables about acceptance and stuff. Why don’t the aliens ever land in the ’hood, where no one will take their shit sitting down? ’Bout time for a story like that, and here it is. E.T. this ain’t. It ain’t even Super 8. Of course, it ain’t what its sci-fi savvy, media aware, government averse heroes think it is, either.

The power of Attack the Block comes from smacking down cinematic clichés, not just the ones we’re familiar with but the ones its protagonists know well, too. Dang, but they’re an unlikable bunch of miscreants — fair warning: they never really get any more likable, either — led by menacing Moses (newcomer John Boyega), a teen gang from poor South London with nothing better to do than terrorize young women. They don’t even particularly want to rob Sam (Jodie Whittaker: Good) when they come upon her, walking home alone along deserted streets, in the opening scene: they just get off on scaring her. They are, in the words of one of Sam’s neighbors, “fuckin’ monsters.” They’re not afraid of the cops. They’re not afraid of anything.

Which is the attitude with which they approach the alien arrival in their neighborhood. Oh, they know instantly that they’re dealing with an extraterrestrial: they’ve seen movies, man. It’s just a small invasion: one creature crash-landing, or so it seems, in its own personal meteor, a hideous thing best described by one of the kids: “Maybe there was a party at the zoo, and a monkey fucked a fish.” (Kudos to those marketing the film for keeping the alien under wraps. That’s always part of the appeal of movies like this: What will the creature look like? Monkey + fish doesn’t really begin to cover it, as you might imagine.)

This is not a spoiler: They beat the thing to death — because that’s what you do with invading aliens — and drag its corpse around the streets and all over their council block (translation: inner-city housing projects) showing it off like the trophy of badassery it is. This turns out not to be such a good idea, because, well… I’m not gonna tell you. Suffice to say that writer-director Joe Cornish — one of Simon Pegg’s posse making his feature debut; Pegg’s bestie Nick Frost (Paul, The Boat That Rocked) appears here in a small role — has come up with a truly clever, truly science-fictional conceit that serves not only as the basis for some unexpected plot twists but for some thematic ones as well.

Those thematic motifs make it okay that Attack the Block is populated almost entirely by characters it’s almost impossible to warm up to. Because their adventures here are about them getting a taste of their own medicine, as the tables turn and they become the prey for the badass aliens who follow that first one. And yet, Cornish doesn’t completely turn his movie over to giving these kids a well-deserved swat on the heinie, either. Moses is one of the most remarkable characters onscreen this year, a creature himself of sly complications — Sam, who happens to live in their same tower block and ends up teaming up with the boys to fight the alien threat, make a surprising discovery about Moses that changes our view of him, and of his possible future — and a heroism that we must grudgingly concede: he’s not a lost cause; he just hasn’t had the guidance he needs to turn his qualities in a more positive direction.

Science fiction adventure aside, it’s no small thing to look at poor, unprivileged places and people and see that there is value in them that is worth recognizing.

But Cornish also delights in nodding to SF chestnuts, too. This is a funny movie, if of a dry sensibility, of kids zooming off on very E.T.-ish bikes, of camera angles that render the tower block as something that looms dangerously over a city much like an alien spaceship might — Block is very aware of the issues of class it is playing with, of how the larger culture treats the poor as somehow alien themselves — and of the thorny reaction all we geeks would have in the face of an honest-to-god alien invasion.

See, by setting his alien-invasion tale in a place many of us are already scared of — the ghetto — Cornish smartly connects it to the same wish-it/dread-it reaction we’d all have to the arrival of nonearthly intelligence: we’d be terrified and thrilled at the same time. It’s the rare SF flick that acknowledges that the desire to discover that We Are Not Alone is intimately and inextricably connected to a fear of that, too.

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