Attack the Block is a weird beast. I can say for sure that the film failed to meet my expectations, but I have trouble putting my finger on what's missing. Raves out of SXSW had me pumped up, but my anticipation wasn't quite at a fever pitch. Advertising pitches the film as a comedy from the creators of Shaun of the Dead and highlights the jokes, but a friend who saw it insists that the primary goal of the film isn't laughs. There are interesting social and political themes, cool monsters, memorable characters, and it's all put together in a relatively stylish package that probably cost less than it looks. So, what's wrong?
The film opens with a woman named Sam (Jodie Whitaker) walking home from her job at the nearby hospital. She is confronted by a local street gang, led by Moses (John Boyega), who rob her of her money and jewelry and then run off to look for more victims. Before they can find any, a meteor crashes into a parked car, and an alien creature pops out, which the boys chase into a nearby playground and beat to death. They're proud of their accomplishment until hundreds of other meteors start dropping, all filled with more aliens that seem interested in exacting some sort of revenge.
First, the good. The creatures in Attack the Block are vivid, memorable creations with "blacker-than-black" fur that reveals no detail and eye-popping blue teeth that glow as if they were lit from within. They run fast, climb walls, and leap around -- the last thing you'll see is those teeth hanging in an endless black hole, flying towards you at top speed. The aliens in Attack the Block are no joke, and there's a reasonable amount of tension when the characters have to do something as innocent as move to another floor of the block. First-time director Joe Cornish creates a great sense of geography within the complex, and gives the film's colors a subtly heightened comic-book level of visual iconography.
However, the kids themselves are troublesome heroes. There's nothing wrong with writing a movie where bad kids turn into good kids, but there's a tonal disconnect with the way the kids are the usual brand likable punks one sees in movies and the truly frightening way they're shown to be thugs. The way they act when they rob Sam and the way they act through the rest of the movie seem at odds with each other; they need to be more edgy or less edgy. Instead, most of them seem too nice to mug an innocent person, with the exception of Moses, whose gloomy demeanor is fitting with his attitude early on but doesn't really lift as the film progresses. The only character who feels consistent the entire way through is Alex Esmail as Pest, who steals the film both comedically and dramatically from the other teens.
Further muddling things is the presence of an angry low-level gangster named Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), who stumbles around on the line between threatening and potentially comedic, and the relatively useless inclusion of Luke Treadaway as a customer of a weed-dealing business run by Nick Frost. There's a message the film is trying to convey about kids who grow up in projects like the block, and whether turning into gangsters like Hi-Hatz is the only future for unsupervised teens like Moses, but it's hard to tell what exactly Moses eventually decides to he wants to rebel against, even if Hi-Hatz is looking for revenge. I don't buy Moses' turn from thug to protector of the block because little seems to motivate it but the circumstances. Arcs like Moses' need to have at least a hint of character-based groundwork, and there's not enough of that here.
I am in the vast minority when it comes to Attack the Block. Although there are good elements in the film, and it's far from a failure, it does strike me as a disappointment. Anyone for looking for something more edgy than Cowboys & Aliens but still firmly within the realm of action entertainment would do well to pick Block instead, but it's an uneven experience, unsure of how to navigate the tricky journey its characters take against the alien menace.
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