Movie Review: Attack the Block (2011)

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Photo: Screen Gems

Reading the press notes for writer/director Joe Cornish’s feature debut, Attack the Block, and learning how the project came together is almost as much fun as watching the film itself. In very brief terms, the idea came to him after being mugged ten years ago and then watching M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. The result is a sci-fi, alien invasion comedy in which a gang of teenage thugs are forced to defend their South London tower block from outer space marauders, thus the apposite tagline, “Inner City vs. Outer Space.”

While you could probably call it something like Goonies meets Gremlins meets Half Baked, this nevertheless feels like a wholly original product you simply don’t want to miss.

Hailing from the UK, Attack the Block debuted at the South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this year to glowing reviews and while it was picked up by Screen Gems for domestic distribution there still seems to be some trouble finding a place in the stateside marketplace. Where it will likely have its biggest issue is in the dialogue, which complaints of not being able to understand what the characters are saying have led to discussions of using subtitles on what is a 100% English language film.

Strangely enough, subtitles would actually do a disservice to the audience and the film considering Cornish intentionally used and infused the inner city dialogue into his script making it just as much a plot point as the “big gorilla, wolf-like” aliens falling from the sky. Besides, the dialogue isn’t hard to understand in the slightest, and secondly the point is to notice the difference between the inner city teens and the world outside of the block they rule and the language is a primary example.

Dedicated to playing FIFA video games and dependent on their prepaid cell phones — “I have one text left… this is too much madness to explain in one text” — we are first introduced to Moses (John Boyega) and his gang as they mug Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young nursing student, at knife point as she is walking home. However, the mugging is interrupted when an alien crashes nearby giving Sam a chance to flee while Moses and his boys — Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones) and Biggz (Simon Howard) — quickly “merck” their unwanted extra-terrestrial guest.

Upon inspection they come to the conclusion they’ve just killed an alien. As one of them describes it, “It looks like there was a party at the zoo and a monkey f**ked a fish.” At which point the audience howls just one of the several times they will over the next 88 minutes as Attack the Block is just as funny as it is, at times, frightening.

From this point on we meet Ron (Nick Frost of Hot Fuzz fame) during a visit to the aptly named “Ron’s Weed Room” just as “more of dem t’ings” begin falling from the sky. Empowered by their first kill, the boys collect bats, knives, fireworks and a samurai sword, mount their bikes and take to the streets to take down more of the invaders. Too bad this second wave proves to be a more formidable foe with their jet black fur, glowing fluorescent choppers and massive frames. At this point it becomes a fight for survival as the aliens descend on the gang’s tower and it’s up to Moses and his friends to stop them.

Part comedy and part horror, this film also carries an inner city message, one that would be partially lost should they decide to add subtitles. While you may have a hard time understanding the gang’s lingo early on it all begins to make perfect sense the deeper into the film you get. By the time you get to the film’s end you will hopefully understand why adding subs would completely defeat the purpose, not to mention eliminate much of the film’s character.

The actors Cornish called upon to read those “hard-to-understand” lines were a stroke of perfect casting. Cornish brought together a group of pretty much all first-time actors to play the youths at the center of the story. As Moses, Boyega gets most of the dramatic heavy lifting as his character says the most about the not-so-perfect lives of inner city teens, Alex Esmail as Pest gets to rattle off a series of oft-hilarious one-liners and Franz Drameh, Leeon Jones and Simon Howard each get their licks in as well. Howard as Biggz became a sentimental favorite of mine the longer the film wore on.

Additionally, Jumayn Hunter as local drug lord and wannabe rapper, Hi-Hatz, is downright hilarious in his character’s ridiculous sincerity and stupidity and Luke Treadaway as the innocent Brewis, who is simply looking to score some weed, is your “dazed and confused” portion of the story. Give the man a fist bump will yah bruv!

Cornish also gives the film a bit of pep by turning to first timer Steve Price and the popular London house duo the Basement Jaxx for the film’s score, which, combined with the film’s comedic timing and fast paced editing, make for an excellent piece of entertainment well worth seeing in theaters and preferably with an audience of equally enthusiastic moviegoers.

Just talking about it makes me want to watch it again as I’m sure this will become a cult classic that will frequently fly off the DVD and Blu-ray shelves as more and more people become aware of it. For now it simply becomes a waiting game to find out when the day will come that masses can soak it all in as it still doesn’t have a set U.S. release date, which is a damn shame… innit?

GRADE: B+

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