Despite its entertainment value, ATTACK THE BLOCK ends up shirking its potentially subversive setup for the tried-and-true route of moral redemption and a vapid political stance.
Attack the Block. Directed by Joe Cornish. At the AMC Loews Boston Common and other movie theaters throughout New England.
By Taylor Adams
I can only imagine the string of expletives emanating from some distributor’s office when a week of terrifying rioting and unrest seized disenfranchised swaths of the U.K. about a week before the U.S. release of Attack the Block. It is, after all, a schlocky British import that happens to feature a rowdy gang of slang-speaking, South London youth fending off an alien invasion (and nearly as often, the police) in and around the public housing estate on which they live.
It’s the kind of movie that a few weeks ago might have passed as a relatively apolitical (and bloody entertaining) amusement. And there’s something to be said for the film on the merits of its cheap, John Carpenter-esque and completely absurd charms. But sorry, bruv, when you start your alien-invasion movie with a diverse bunch of poor kids in their mid-teens robbing a lone, white nurse, the politics tend to make an entrance rather like that of the rampaging, asteroid-hitchhiking, glow-in-the-dark, teethed killing machines that appear in the scenes to follow.
After bumbling through the aforementioned robbery of Sam (Jodie Whittaker), ringleader Moses (John Boyega) and his friends are startled when a meteorite smashes into a nearby car. Rooting around in the wreck for valuables, they instead find a small alien, which they dispatch with brutal gusto half because it attacked them and half for the hell of it. Of course, larger and far more angry aliens start to show up soon after, as do the police that Sam calls after the mugging. And when the police meet the aliens while arresting Moses for the mugging, things get ugly, and, of course, the gang’s gonna get blamed for that, too.
Believe it or not, there’s more: while fleeing the bloodbath in a stolen police van, they smash up resident drug lord Hi-Hatz’s “whip” real bad, leading to a persistent bout of homicidal rage in the dealer/rapper/self-proclaimed owner of “the block.” Add in a couple stoner archetypes (Nick Frost and Luke Treadaway) who stumble around providing comic relief (from the comedy) and you have one absurd setup for another hour of situation, character, and location-based gags.
On this premise, the film delivers as promised. The dialogue is local (and could function as a decent primer for understanding the London slang in last week’s news reports, or vice-versa) but the humor (or humour?) is universal. As in one running gag where the teens lack enough pre-paid phone credit to effectively communicate during the crisis (“This is too much madness for just one text!”), it’s witty rather than smart. Often, that’s enough.
That it was produced by those behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz shows. So, too, does the fact that unlike those films, it was written and directed not by Edgar Wright but by newcomer Joe Cornish, who does an adequate job but has not yet mastered Wright’s mysterious ability to inject almost inconceivable charm into otherwise preposterous, joke-premise projects pretty much like this one. Technically, the film can get shaky at times, but it’s stitched together well enough for what it is, which is silly and stupid and clever and generically self-conscious, loudly and all at once.
But there is, here, a consciousness about social-economic issues or what-have-you that hints at a thematic intelligence Cornish applied only gently to the finished product. Before the mayhem, there’s a scene where Moses is recruited by boss Hi-Hatz to sell drugs around the Block. We’re meant to understand that in a world of few options, it’s a veritable promotion. His face, though, is pained, conflicted—you can see him realize for the first of many times he’s becoming a part of the violent culture that pervades the block, that hurts his friends and neighbors.
Still, when back out with his frens, it’s a cause for celebration, and his discomfort disappears. Maybe it’s the same kind of crowd-reinforced excitement that compels otherwise good kids to join in looting when the whole city seems to be doing it. Who knows. For better or worse, it’s way beyond the scope of a film like this to answer or even explicitly ask these questions.
But it’s not out of line to call society’s bluff from time to time, as does one of the teens when he spouts “Trust me, this has got nothing to do with gangs or drugs or rap music or violence in video games” to a Sam newly recruited into the Block’s unified resistance against an abstract, completely meaningless alien threat.
Moses, at one point, speculates that the aliens are part of some kind of government conspiracy to kill off the poor and minorities. Is he serious? The film isn’t: people in the movie laugh, cuing people in the theater to do the same. All the politics here are a joke. Cornish is obviously aware of this. He seems to want to poke fun at British social problems without taking much of a debatable (and thus defensible) stand.
This is because the film itself necessarily shirks its potentially subversive setup for the tried-and-true route of moral redemption and a vapid political stance. The kids (what’s left of them, anyway) will win the right to play the good guys through their actions defending the block. The British authorities continue to be ineffectual and unjust. Spoiler alert! There are no surprises here.
But there is, nevertheless, a certain “gotcha” feeling, a certain added resonance, in the context of viewing this movie in close proximity to seeing the social situation it playfully depicts erupt into real, deadly violence off-screen. That context is what makes this film interesting beyond the formulaic, enjoyable gags, the Britishisms, the alien blood, and the little kids with impromptu supersoaker-flamethrowers who eventually show up to save one of the older crew from a grisly, alien fate.
In the end, let’s face it: You’re probably going to learn slightly more about the current situation in the U.K. (and increasingly, everywhere else) through these kids and their aliens than you are from the latest Masterpiece-Theatre-type Colin Firth vehicle. Sometimes screen fantasies are just that, until you take a closer look.