Monday, June 9, 2014

Review: Attack the Block

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Watch this movie. Seriously. It deserves to be seen. Even though I know that no singular movie will ever cater to everyone’s tastes, and that this one in particular has some fairly unorthodox choices regarding its protagonists, I really loved Attack the Block and would urge others to see it.

It’s essentially an alien B-movie, but instead of the action taking place on a global scale, it concentrates on a run-down council block in south London. Its protagonists are a bunch of teenagers who are refreshingly played by (gasp!) actual teenagers. The aliens aren’t super-soldiers intent on mass destruction or in taking over the world, but are instead acting on a far more primal, biological urge.

And it’s a film that has something to say, though it’s not going to beat you around the head with it. Near the start of the film, a character mutters: “they’re fucking monsters!” in relation to something that isn’t the aliens, but by the end the very same character (and hopefully the audience as well) has had her views completely turned around. Writer/director Joe Cornish uses a shoestring budget to put together a surprisingly sophisticated film that touches on class issues and race relations in the most effortless way imaginable.

Picture this:

A young white woman is walking home from work when she’s set upon by a gang of masked and hooded delinquents who demand she give up her phone and wallet. The black youth in charge demands her ring which she can't manage to get off her finger. Things look as though they’re about to turn ugly when the mugging is interrupted by a large unidentified object hurtling out of the sky and crashing into a car right next to them.

So you all know what happens next, right? The nice white lady rushes back to her apartment block to rally her neighbours together for the imminent alien attack, whilst the teenage hoodlums are quickly disposed of; the quintessential unsympathetic
Red Shirts who are killed off in order to demonstrate what the monsters from outer space are capable of (and to drive home the message that crime doesn’t pay).

Well, you’d be completely wrong.

Crime certainly doesn’t pay, but not in the way you’d expect. Sam (the nurse) makes a run for it, whilst Moses (the gang leader) investigates the car, gets a nasty facial wound from the alien lurking inside, and leads his fellow cohorts across the park to bash it to death with planks of wood. They head back home with their trophy, taking all the way up to the top floor of the council block to store in the local marijuana grower’s weed room.

"Maybe there was a party at the zoo and a monkey fucked a fish?"

There the boys witness several more of the aliens crashing down to earth, and they do exactly what you’d expect any teenage hoodlum to do in this situation – head out to kill more of them.

Heading back out onto the streets, it soon becomes clear that this new wave of aliens don't go down as easily as the first one. As black as shadows with rows of bioluminescent teeth and the speed and strength of simians (the gang coin the term "big alien wolf gorilla motherfuckers"), the aliens are terrifying opponents that quickly accrue a bloody body count.

The boys head back to the council block where they run back into the unfortunate Sam and take refuge (against her will) in her apartment. Realizing that their claims of an alien invasion are true, she decides to stick with them for her own safety and follow them back up to the weed room, believed to be the safest part of the building.

Winding in and out of the narrative are several other characters to help or hinder them: a pot-smoking college student, a drug-dealing criminal, a couple of nine year olds who insist on being called Props and Mayhem, a group of teenage girls who are easily the most intelligent characters in the film, and Nick Frost in a small role (with the best lines) as Ron the weed-grower.

And unfortunately for Sam, the aliens are specifically targeting the boys – though I won’t give away why. In fact, I don’t want to give away too much more. A lot of the fun of the movie is the way it keeps surprising you.

But I do want to talk a little about Sam and Moses. These two make up a relationship that TV tropes refers to as
The Not Love Interest. This is when a pair of characters take the place-holders that you’d usually expect to be filled by a pair of lovers, in the sense that they have a very close relationship that makes up the backbone of the story. Sam/Moses isn’t even remotely romantic, but they do encompass the most important relationship of the film, and the way it unfolds is Joe Cornish’s greatest contribution to the story.

Obviously it doesn’t start out well. Moses mugs Sam, leaving her shaken, afraid, defiant and angry. When they cross paths for the second time, Sam is in a more secure position (sitting in a police van alongside two cops) and confidently identifying her perpetrator. The third time she's fleeing into her flat with the boys seemingly in pursuit (they’re actually running from the aliens) only for her to realize that there’s a greater threat out there. From there, she tags along with Moses and the gang, only to prove herself surprisingly useful on more than one occasion.

All of these run-ins between herself and Moses are marked by a very simple gesture between the two of them: a prolonged gaze. At first they look at each other with fear and hostility, by the end (after they’ve each saved the other’s life) it’s with respect and trust. By the time the credits roll you can tell they've reached a level of understanding that only a life-threatening situation could have ever granted them, and it’s such a great deconstruction of the dynamic you’d usually expect between a Nice White Lady and a Scary Black Youth.

That said, on reading a few of the one-star reviews on, it’s apparent that some people took offense at the fact a mugger could be established as the protagonist and eventual hero of a film, and it’s a shame that they take such a narrow-minded view of what really unfolds on the screen.

First of all, at no point does the film condone the mugging or try to sweep it under the rug (ie, have an edgy introduction to the characters only to forget all about it). What happens to Sam was awful and terrifying, and throughout the course of the film she never lets up on criticizing what the boys did to her. Even when she begins to warm up to them, even when Moses tries to apologise, even at the film’s denouement, it’s made abundantly clear that mugging is a shitty thing to do. She never forgives them and she’s not expected to.

Yet the mugging itself is an intrinsic part of Moses’s character development. If there’s any overt moral to the film it’s that actions have consequences, and Moses certainly learns that the hard way when he kills the first alien he comes across.

At approximately the film’s mid-point the gang takes shelter in the apartment of a group of teenage girls (they chose it because they’ve got a security door). Easily the smartest characters in the whole film, the girls point out that the boys have no doubt brought this trouble upon themselves and promptly leave so that they’re not caught up in any more violence (this is after they take out an alien with a lamp, an ice-skate and a polka-dot bed-sheet – it’s awesome).

Smartest characters in the movie. Seriously.

At the climax of the film, when the remaining survivors have twigged as to what the aliens want and how they can get rid of them, Moses gives Sam her ring back and the two of them work together in order to prepare a trap for Moses to activate – and whilst Sam is doing so, she partakes in a phone conversation with Moses that reveals a particularly poignant detail to his life (let’s just say he’s younger than he looks).

In short, Moses realizes what he’s done and steps up in order to fix the problem that he started. Sam is allowed to put her muggers’ lives into context and judge them on more than just first impressions. It’s a fantastic arc for two characters that initially appear to be flat stereotypes, and they forge an extraordinarily subtle understanding of each other by the time the credits roll.

Plus, it’s bloody hilarious. There are so many great lines of dialogue that I had to keep rewinding, just to fully appreciate them. Most of it’s what I’m going to call “panic humour”, in which the laughs are derived from the frantic and hysterical deliveries from the actors.

Seriously, take a chance on this movie. It’s surprisingly brilliant.

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