No phoning home

Attack the Block

The aliens ain’t E.T., and these London kids on bikes are pretty much thugs.

The aliens ain’t E.T., and these London kids on bikes are pretty much thugs.

Rated 4.0

“It all looked much worse on TV than it really was,” a Londoner friend emailed recently, “and a suitably fascist over-reaction by the police and the judiciary means that any more flare-ups will be clamped down on, hard! It’s great to live in a police state that pretends to be a democracy.”

Well, how does it look at the cinema? For context, we could do worse than Attack the Block, in which British comedian Joe Cornish makes his feature debut, with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz maestro Edgar Wright as executive producer.

Movies generally aren’t good for much, march-of-history-wise, and it is a stretch to think that a low-budget alien-invasion action comedy could be so anthropologically attuned as to seem prescient. But there is at least something cathartic about seething social tensions filtered through a thrifty eruption of pop-culture effluvia, and we can agree that now would not be the right time for another posh feel-good film about the royal family.

On paper, this might seem like familiar blockbuster fodder: The teen heroes of Attack the Block bicker, stick together, ride bikes, discover interstellar incomers and do without their parents. There is also the matter of them being poor and angry and living in a grim London housing project. That bickering gushes out in a slangy West Indies dialect, full of aggro hip-hop postures, and the absence of those parents seems sharply pointed. Urchins mostly in the sense of being spiny, it’s as if they were born to make middle-class white people uncomfortable.

Indeed, the first thing frontman Moses (John Boyega) and his multiracial crew do is mug a pretty young white woman (Jodie Whittaker) at knifepoint. Then, upstaged by a visiting extraterrestrial, and accordingly incensed, he kills the thing and carries its corpse around like a trophy. In no time the block is beset by vicious ape-like aliens with glowing teeth and no other discernible features. What’s really scary, though, is that our expected course of emotional manipulation has been affronted, too. Moses isn’t off the hook for his lawlessness, but neither are we for any reactionary lack of sympathy. Like it or not, this puffed-up unsmiling thug will have to be our protagonist. And he will have to earn our respect.

This is not just another homage to vintage Spielberg (it is therefore encouraging, if calculatedly so, to find Cornish among the screenwriters of Spielberg’s forthcoming Adventures of Tintin). If anything, with its blame-society brashness, it’s more like vintage John Carpenter or George Romero.

Much of what makes Attack the Block so fun to watch is the eagerness with which Cornish’s stock-character subversion gets taken up by his cast. It’s especially a powerful debut for Boyega, a natural leader to his mostly nonpro posse who commands attention at every turn. Whittaker also holds her own, and there are juicy small parts for Jumayn Hunter as a menacing gangsta overlord, Nick Frost as an affable pot point man, and Luke Treadaway as a forlorn preppy kid who’s useless to the rest of the group except when his academic understanding of zoology comes in handy.

Though pumped ever forward by banter and brazen cutting and Basement Jaxx beats, Attack the Block’s prevailing tone is levelheadedness. Cornish has too much sense to congratulate himself for a clever allegory; his humor and anger bring balance instead of mutual cancellation. We get to hear Moses’ desperately dour suggestion that the aliens have been sent by the government to finish off black people once and for all, and to see it met with derisive laughter. In this context, skimpy production values seem aesthetically correct. Neither the invading creatures nor the social critique seem excessively designed, and the result on both fronts is rough-hewn credibility.

It is troubling that Cornish needs a manufactured common foe, a vacantly hostile other, to get across his hopeful idea of hard-won community cooperation. But the thinking is consistent: As much as Attack the Block challenges the passive complacency of its audience, it’s also a challenge to the complacency with which a gang of young hoodlums terrorize their neighborhood. It seems telling that the threat seems only temporarily neutralized at the end. By then the cops are on the scene, and, as per my London friend’s email, their presence only makes everything worse.