Bad Vs Worse
Okay, we may as well get this out of the way before we go any further: most people's point of reference for Joe Cornish's Attack the Block is going to be Shaun of the Dead. It's not as if the film even shies away from this much: 'from the producers of...' features prominently on the poster, Edgar Wright is involved, Nick Frost has a hefty cameo role and the film is, essentially, a similar kind of stylistic mash-up. But, and I'm being up front about this, if you go in expecting a film as deft and witty and smart as Shaun then you won't be doing yourself, or Attack the Block, any favours, because where the 2004 movie felt like a brilliant discovery, this is more some sort of bizarre oddity.
The film opens with Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young nurse, walking home one Bonfire Night. She lives in a tower block on a desolate London council estate and soon finds herself facing a fairly grim scenario as she is surrounded and mugged at knifepoint by a gang of youths. Then things become somewhat less predictable and rather more surprising as a ball of fire falls from the sky and disgorges a slavering, clawed, ferocious creature.
Sam runs and in a slightly queasy narrative lurch the gang of muggers become the protagonists, as they kill the thing and carry away its remains as a trophy. But it soon becomes apparent that the fireball was only the first of many, and more – containing considerably more dangerous luminously-toothed gorilla-wolves – are landing all over the neighbourhood. The gang aren't about to let any bunch of extraterrestrial monsters muscle in on their turf and quickly tool themselves up as the aliens prepare to attack the block they live in...
Quite by chance I caught a showing of this movie with subtitles, and in retrospect this may have been a good thing as nearly all the characters are a generation younger than me and speak in a street patois I am not particularly fluent in. I have no way of being sure, but it certainly seemed to me that the movie was doing a good job of giving an authentic impression of the dead-end culture the main characters have grown up within. Having said that, this is clearly the work of someone quite well-versed in the SF genre – the gang reside in Wyndham Tower, overlooking Ballard Street (amongst others), and while the movie doesn't directly reference either writer (except perhaps Ballard's High Rise, and then only tangentially) it was a nice reference.
But most importantly, Joe Cornish definitely seems to have chops as a film director. I was startled, years ago, to hear he and Edgar Wright had been retained to write a script for Marvel Studios, but on the strength of this they should snap him up as a solo act – he has a sure eye for the kind of cinematic flourish that really makes Attack the Block look like it belongs on the big screen. Rather in the way that Richard Ayoade seems to have assimilated the sensibility of American indie and produced his own version of it, so Cornish has done the same with a more mainstream, action-oriented style.
Given Cornish's background as a performer – not to mention the presence in this film of Nick Frost, who demonstrates his usual monumental ability to steal scenes – you might expect this to be a rather broader comedy than it is. There are a few laughs along the way, to be sure, but this is really a...
Uh, well, I may have to get back to you on that one, because... well, if this movie is primarily intended as an action movie, it has a serious problem practically from the first scene. This is because most of the main characters are initially introduced as violent muggers and as a result almost impossible to sympathise with or root for (for me, anyway). It may be the idea that as time goes by we're intended to forget how we first met the gang, or that the circumstances of the alien excursion are sufficiently serious to justify our overlooking the fact they're vicious thugs – but the film never quite pulls this trick off.
And I get the impression Cornish is aware of this and it's something he's done deliberately, almost as a challenge to the audience. It would, after all, be easy enough to have started the film differently, omitted the mugging, and avoided this whole problem. If it's not deliberate then it's a major mis-step on his part.
I suspect it was a calculated move, as when it's not being a rather 2000AD-ish action movie Attack the Block seems to want to say serious things about gang culture and wasted young lives in British inner-cities. But exactly what these things are I couldn't quite make out, beyond a few very obvious points hammered home without a great deal of subtlety – 'Actions have consequences,' someone says at one point, rather labouring the issue.
When it comes to youth gang members – 'hoodies', as we rather charmingly used to refer to them – most films either mindlessly glamourise them, reflexively demonise them, or treat them much more thoughtfully as damaged, broken people, the product of their environment. At various points Attack the Block does all three, which is a neat trick. Whether it serves the story or not is another matter.
John Boyega does a bang-up job of portraying Moses, leader of the gang, and does succeed in giving him depth as a character (some of the other young performers are ever so slightly am-dram). But you don't go to a knockabout action movie about aliens to get soul-searching and social comment, just as you don't go to see a drama about the awful lives of dead-end kids on council estates looking for action sequences with CGI nasties (if there's a social metaphor involved in the alien incursion storyline, I can't discern what it is). Cornish has succeeded in fusing together two genres with absolutely nothing in common in terms of tone or audience expectations.
Once again, it's a neat trick, but I'm not sure who exactly is going to find this movie a completely satisfying experience. It's an extremely well-made and well-directed film, and a major calling card for Joe Cornish, but to completely enjoy it I think you would have to identify with the central characters to a degree of which I'm simply not capable: and while that's partly a simple issue of fact, it's also a result of the script. I'm loath to describe any film as being too clever for its own good, but Attack the Block may be just that.