Film Review: Attack the Block (2011)

A teenage street gang in London mugs a woman and then gets attacked by what they think is a large firework. When they investigate the wreckage, their leader Moses is attacked by an unidentifiable creature. They chase after it to get revenge, setting off an intergalactic war on the human race. They made first contact and responded by kicking the alien to death.

Writer/director Joe Cornish's debut feature film is a novel take on the sci-fi/thriller hybrid. Set in South London, Cornish crafts a believable gang of street kids who do not fear the law. They carry around baseball bats and machetes, deal drugs, and do everything they can to maintain the reputation of The Block--the apartment complex they live in. The young lead characters--played by a strong ensemble cast of mostly first-time actors--bring a very well-structured story to life in a way that feels natural. Even the more ludicrous elements, like young teenagers being masters of fireworks as offensive weapons, feel real because of Cornish's planning.

The big draw of the film is how natural the interactions are. These are the kids you see hanging out at the mall joking around with each other. They dare each other to do stupid things and go home to play XBOX at night. They think they're invincible because they're young but cut each other down instantly when things get to ridiculous. This rapport between the cast is what sets Attack the Block apart from so many other low budget sci-fi films.

The creature design is instantly recognizable and poses a clear threat to anyone who comes in contact with them. They are dark as a shadow except for their glowing rows of razor sharp teeth. They have no eyes. They can climb any surface and can rip through almost any material as if it were paper. The creatures go for the kill every time and do not mess around with torturing the enemy. If they pounce on you, you will die if you can't kill them first.

It's not just a matter of characters and creatures that sets Attack the Block apart. It is the beautifully structured and layered screenplay. Science fiction takes a lot of effort to get right if you're working from the ground up. You have to set the rules of the universe, make them seem plausible--if not realistic--if the film is set on Earth, and you have to justify everything without lecturing the audience. Cornish does that with flourish.

Even tiny details like naming the leader of the gang Moses pay off big dividends in the end. Characters are named appropriately, recurring elements--such as the Weed Room or the titular Block--constantly change meaning, and tiny little details in the background become the key piece of information later on.

If there is a flaw to Attack the Block, it is how heavy handed some of those details come across at times. The editing can push a clever concept into an image so blatant you know it's going to come into play later on. A TV broadcast, a slowly delivered piece of dialog, or even the look a character gives a certain object teeter between subtle foreshadowing and too much exposition.

The balance is mostly right. The few times I did feel beat over the head didn't ruin the film. It just made it a bit less free and easy like so much of the work the actors put into the feature.

Attack the Block is a must see for science fiction fans looking for an original property. It's clever, it's funny, and it creates a great universe in under ninety minutes.

Rating: 8/10

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