A gang of tough inner-city kids who rob Sam (Jodie Whittaker) as she is walking home but she escapes when the gang is attacked by a small alien creature which falls from the sky. While Sam and the police hunt for the gang, a second wave of creatures falls. The gang grabs weapons, mount bikes, and set out to defend their turf. But this time, the creatures are much bigger. Savage and bestial, nothing will stand in their way. And the bunch of no-hope kids who just attacked Sam are about to become her only hope.
BRISBANE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Joe Cornish’s well-chosen opening shot and audio cues will speak volumes to sci-fi fans: An interstellar craft arcs across a vast starscape, a throbbing musical accompaniment portending dark disturbing events just ahead.
The scene speaks to lovers (aren’t we all?) of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), the epitome of alien invasion films from the last half-century. In working from his own script, Cornish indicates that he gets what’s good about the genre; he respectfully nods to his primary influence in the very first minutes, putting his key demographic onside, before setting sail on his own spin on outer-space visitation.
On Guy Fawkes night in South London, Cornish introduces his anti-hero Moses (John Boyega): a knife-wielding, 15-year-old petty crim, who is in the midst of robbing and terrifying nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker), when a meteorite smashes into a nearby parked car. Sam flees; Moses investigates, only to be clawed at by the projectile’s inhabitant. Angered, he and his hoodlum posse hunt down the creature, kill it and take it back to 'The Block’, the high-rise, housing commission digs ruled by small-time drug baron Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) and his pot-dealing offsider Ron (Nick Frost, the only recognisable cast member).
But the creature (resembling, as Ron puts it, 'as if a monkey had sex with a fish") was only the first wave of alien creatures. Seeking out their fallen comrade, bigger, nastier outer-spacers arrive and soon Moses, Sam and the crew are running for their lives within the confines of the Block, as well as struggling to cope with their new found status as protectors of planet Earth.
Cornish stumbles slightly as his third act kicks-off – there are one-too-many scenes of youths yelling at each other in small rooms, which causes the tension to slacken for a period – but it is a momentary lack of discipline that is soon righted. The individuals within Moses’ gang are each given strong, distinct personalities (the highlight is tough white-gangster wannabe Pest, played Alex Esmail, who nails some of the film’s best lines), allowing for a natural dynamic within the quintet. Their banter, chemistry and ultimate bravery in the face of an alien onslaught is reminiscent of the marines in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), a film that obviously influenced Cornish in his tight shot composition and cutting of scenes to create dread and panic.
The aliens themselves are great movie monsters, it must be said. Covered in an inky fur ('Blacker than my cousin Farez," observes one character), blind but with acute olfactory senses, not to mention razor-sharp glowing teeth, the vicious quadrupeds are brought to life with a fluidity of motion and natural animal-like gait that’s a design triumph.
So used are we to this working-class setting being the palette for kitchen-sink dramas by the likes of Loach and Leigh, there’s a tendency to look deeper into Attack the Block for something profound. Why set the film in a poor, crime-ridden South London tenement if you don’t have some social commentary? One can derive from Cornish’s characterisations a universal message that we are all capable of being good, brave people, regardless of our standing, but that feels like clutching at straws in an effort to give a fun film deeper meaning. This wonderfully talented filmmaker will get to the serious stuff later in what is sure to be his long career. Right now, he seems far more interested in crafting a good-time scare, which he achieves superbly.