The film opens with a visual and musical reference to John Carpenter’s The Thing – an electronic throb plays over the opening image of something from space coming to earth – turns out it is a firework but it is a prelude to a solid action adventure.
The story begins at night as a trainee nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker) makes her way to her home.
Whilst walking through South London she gets mugged by a gang of teenagers led by Moses (John Boyega). During the mugging, what they think is a meteorite crashes through the roof of a nearby car distracting the muggers and allowing Sam to get away. Moses decides to search the car for valuables but gets attacked by an alien which the gang kills. They take the body to a cannabis factory run by a chap named Ron (Nick Frost) for a drug dealer named Hi-Hatz. A cannabis addled student named Brewis identifies it as an alien and valuable. More meteorites are falling which means more aliens and money. The gang heads out to battle.
The director, Joe Cornish (one half of comedy duo Adam and Joe), has revealed he is a major cine-literate film fan through his previous radio and television work and Attack the Block reflects this. It is full of running and yelling and bloodshed but lightened up with comedic one-liners that references everything from Gremlins to Gears of War and is clearly influenced by films like Aliens and John Carpenter’s back-catalogue.
In many interviews Cornish has stated that he was trying to make a John Carpenter movie, “a crazy fun cool action thriller with a little bit of social subtext,” and he embarked upon much detailed study of South London street gangs by going to youth centres and learning their lifestyles and dialect. The effort shows. Picture Aliens taking place in a South London tower block lit up like a spaceship and replace the Colonial Marines with hoodies.
It is a film that succeeds in melding these influences together but remaining fresh by not being too obvious and the film crashes along. Strangely however my response to it was muted as the horror was not cranked up enough to move me but I responded more to the realistic depiction of South London life.
For a first time director, Joe Cornish shows such skill as he marshals the films young and inexperienced cast well. Even though they portray hoodies infesting the streets at night, carrying knives and mugging the lovely Jodie Whittaker, they retain audience affection because of their personalities, flawed yet honourable to an extent. Strong performances made sure they felt real and you empathised with them. It also helps that there are worse things out there, human and monster.
The monsters are actually quite beautiful – the reason for my lack of reaction to the horror. They bound along and have such gorgeously midnight-black fur and luminous teeth. The soundtrack is also a highlight. As much as I don’t like garage music it worked here as a reference to John Carpenter’s scores and in building up tension until the score plays beautifully over a slow-motion chase through the block.
All of these elements, aliens and milieu, characters and action unfold over a simple narrative that is fun, exciting and well paced. Not scary but a very fine film that is entertaining.