81: Attack the Block (2011)

wri-dir. Joe Cornish, United Kingdom, 2011, 88 mins


Speaking of good science fiction, Attack the Block envisions the marginalized urban periphery as a literal war zone where authorities are content to let both their homegrown poor and intruding illegal alien invaders eat themselves alive in a bloody struggle for survival — until a Respectable Attractive White Girl is put in danger, of course. It’s one of the many conscientious moments elicited by writer-director Joe Cornish in his The Warriors-with-aliens romp, which provides thrills and laughs in equal measure while always being acutely conscious of the social environment that serves as its backdrop.

Just as The Warriors transposed Xenophon’s march-to-the-sea military narrative Anabasis from ancient Greek hoplites to New York street gangs, Attack the Block uses another potent war metaphor to frame its story: the castle under siege. Its primary defender is Moses (John Boyega), the leader of a band of teenagers who all live in the same council estate in South London. Boyega radiates an aloof gravitas beyond his years, and when he gives his compatriots terse commands such as “Allow it,” the words drop with the weight of royal assent.

When meteors rain from the sky and let loose their alien cargo — strange creatures, all jagged edges and darkness, save for their neon rows of razor-teeth — Moses is there to make first contact in the most direct way possible, leaving the creature dead and the jingoistic battle cry “Welcome to London, motherfucker!” ringing in the air.  But there are more of the things, an invading horde, and Moses and his gang reluctantly take up the role of ramshackle garrison to defend their home from the rampaging aliens.

Cornish makes great use of the architecture of the setting, turning their public housing project into a fortress with its walkways and tunnels and elevators providing one of the few advantages Moses and his crew have over the aliens, as they use their knowledge of the geography to outrun and outwit the creatures. The castle even has a keep: the vault-like drug safehouse manned by spaced-out dealer Ron (Nick Frost), who provides the adult voice of wisdom, such as it is. But he’s only the caretaker for the real king, bloodthirsty boss Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), who at once provides a glimpse into a possible future for Moses — if he manages to live through the night — and a deadly rival who adds another complication in the midst of the siege.

They also cross paths with Sam (Jodie Whittaker), the aforementioned R.A.W.G., who was mugged by Moses and his crew earlier in the night but becomes a reluctant ally in their fight against the aliens. In one of the film’s quieter moments, a repentant Moses tells her that if he knew that she lived on the block — that she was one of them — they wouldn’t have mugged her. Her response — that his sentiment doesn’t make things right — also makes clear that she isn’t one of them, and regardless of the threat in front of them, she comes from a different (cultural) place entirely.

That’s at the core of it all: forget space aliens, the council estate might as well be on another planet. When someone floats the idea of contacting the police, the kids immediately laugh it off, as if the idea that the police had any ability or purpose beyond harassing them was anything but ludicrous. When talking about alien invasion, they immediately reference The X-Files and the FBI, while struggling to name its British equivalent. Most films that feature civilians (as opposed to police or military) dealing with alien encounters require the characters to be isolated from their surroundings, but as opposed to the rural quietude of Super 8 or Signs, Cornish is cognizant of the isolated and invisible spaces that exist inside the city. The block is a fortress that wards away the outside world just as it corrals those who live within. It’s this paradox that drives Moses: they can’t run because there is nowhere to run to. They have to stand their ground because this is the only ground they know.

Lest I make the film sound more like a sociological treatise than a movie where a kid fights an alien monster with a katana, let me be absolutely clear: this is a movie where a kid fights an alien monster with a katana. (It’s an impeccably tense sequence, by the way.) Attack the Block packs thrilling setpieces and wall-to-wall banter in its 88 minutes, but what holds everything together is the obvious respect it has for its characters. They could have been caricatures run through the cinematic meatginder, but there’s heart and nuance to them, self-conscious without self-congratulatory irony. The film eschews the trendy vérité aesthetic yet finds the truth in its characters anyway. How else can one explain its strong black protagonist, literally bloodstained, a scapegoat for his community’s sins, making a bid for fiery redemption with a death-defying stunt that leaves him clinging to the Union Jack? Welcome to London, indeed.