Thursday, January 19, 2012

Random Movie Report #97: Attack the Block

Attack the Block poster and Amazon link

I'm not sure why Attack the Block didn't get a better release in the US. Sure, it's uniquely a product of British culture, immersed in UK slang and the sensationalized chav gang culture, but alien monsters are a universal language and the hook of "inner city vs. outer space" (see above) isn't exactly hard to explain to a wide audience. In any case, it's a movie you should see, working both as a genre exercise and a riff on social issues. In spirit it hearkens back to the alien-monster epics of the 80s, but has a vibe all its own.

The block is a block of flats, aka an apartment building, in this case a particularly run down bit of state housing, with a small gang of very young hoodlums running about under the direction of Moses (John Boyega) who seems to be in charge mainly because he's the biggest. (And also his name is Moses, so it was sort of inevitable.) We start off seeing the kids mug a young woman named Sam (Jodie Whitaker), so they look pretty bad, but there's something worse out there. A meteor falls nearby, unleashing a nasty toothy alien thing which the gang quickly dispatch and bring to the local stoner (Nick Frost) to keep in his greenhouse while they await the inevitable tabloid payout. However, more meteors start landing and disgorging even more vicious nasty toothy alien things, and they're all converging on the block (hence the title.) The gang are the only ones mobile enough to try and keep people alive, including, ironically enough, the girl they just robbed, who isn't entirely pleased with her self-appointed rescuers.

There's a lot of sociopolitical baggage in all this, as the film makes heroes out of possibly the single most disliked group in British media- poor kids on council estates who commit crimes because they're bored. They exist, and the film doesn't attempt to excuse their actions as justified by their class- Sam is a block resident too, and though they claim they wouldn't have robbed her had they known, that's not really an excuse. However the film reminds us that kids like this are just that, kids, irresponsible and immature by nature. The film begins showing the gang at their most menacing, then sets itself the challenge of making us like them. And it kind of succeeds.

Indeed, the nice trick of this movie is that it's actually a story of maturation for Moses. As played by Boyega, he's a boy trying very hard to look like a man, wearing a perpetual scowl and never betraying much emotion. He's set himself as a responsible leader of the gang, but over the course of the film it's revealed his actions have indirectly set the creatures on them. It becomes a very satisfying arc in the midst of a lot of blunder and action, as entertaining as that is in and of itself.

The aliens themselves are a nice design, with neon-green teeth and fur as black as the cover of "Smell the Glove", light seemingly falling into them. They're mindless beasts, but we're given a nice sci-fi explanation for their behavior that ties into the movie's main emotional arc pretty well. Some of the characters are less developed than they could be, and as with almost all horror/comedy combos, the film's tone isn't 100% steady, but the story is compelling enough that these shortcomings don't drag it down very far. Be warned, though, if you're not familiar with the slang and speech patterns of estate-housing London, some of the dialogue might fly by.

Even when you're making a film about rampaging beasties from outer space, stories tend to be about people, and Attack the Block remembers this. It functions well enough as a monster movie, and can be enjoyed just on that level, but it also broaches some touchy subject matter and makes us look through the eyes of people the tabloids would have you believe are slavering blind savages running riot. Even the most irresponsible of us has the potential to be a hero, and access to a katana doesn't hurt.

Written and Directed by Joe Cornish

Grade: A-

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