Review: Attack the Block – when aliens invade south London

30 May 2011

Directed by Joe Cornish

Attack the Block is a fast-paced and extremely funny sci-fi movie, set in modern-day south London. It is remarkable for its use of unknown actors, whose lives and backgrounds resemble the characters they play, and a script that benefits from having been developed in collaboration with south London youth.
The pace of the action never drags, the use of location is inspired and the look of the film combines familiarity with the unexpected.
The aliens, for example, resemble black, shag-pile rugs with glow-stick teeth, very retro and comic. But Joe Cornish can still ramp up the suspense because you only ever catch a glimpse of them at the last moment of an attack.
It is in plot, characters and dialogue, however, that the film excels. The opening scene: a gang of teenagers mug a young nurse, Sam, for her phone outside Oval tube on bonfire night, just when an alien lands. Gang leader Moses is scarred round the face and the gang track down the alien, killing it:
“That’s aliens from outta space, trying to take over the earth, man. But they landed in the wrong place. The wrong place!”
This is the central metaphor of the film. Two mindless attacks have unforeseen consequences: Sam is left on the verge of quitting London, but is forced by circumstance to team up with her attackers and ends up standing up for them; Moses is mercilessly tracked down by the rest of the alien invaders in revenge until he takes responsibility for his actions. In the process, both find their place in the community.
Attack the Block is not a political film but race, gender and class are certainly central themes. There is the white, middle class student Brewis, who starts off too scared to enter a lift with black youths (“I’ll wait for the next one”) but ends up being accepted when he joins them in the fight against the aliens. And there are the young, black women, who tear off the boys a strip, when they find out they’ve mugged Sam.
But Moses and Sam are the main characters. When Sam tells the gang she doesn’t like the area, one of them rounds on her, “Whatcha mean you don’t like the area? What’s wrong with the area?” Later, she explains that her boyfriend is “in Kenya, looking after children” – “What’s wrong with the children here?” snaps the reply. This gets to the heart of the different relationships the classes have to where they live: a roof of convenience for one, home to the other.
But when Sam discovers Moses’ bedroom, replete with children’s posters and a Spiderman duvet, she is amazed:
How old are you?
You look a lot older.

Like a lot of young immigrants, Moses is bringing himself up on his own with only an absentee “uncle” occasionally on hand. This is the source of his aggression – and vulnerability. It is the turning point in the film, when Sam realises you don’t have to go to Kenya to help needy children and Moses feels accepted as an equal by someone who’s made it, legitimately.
I can’t give the ending away because you must see this film yourself. If you can, see it in the cinema – I saw it in Peckham and the audience made for half the enjoyment.

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