(Joe Cornish, 2011)
Attack the Block creates its own biggest problem in the opening scene, then spends long stretches of the remainder of the film attempting to overcome that problem. In that scene, a young nurse is returning home at night to a South East London tower block, when she is mugged at knifepoint by five youths. This mugging is quite gritty and realistic, even frightening in its sudden inevitability and implied violence. Then the youths are revealed - once an alien has literally crashed into all their lives - as the films chief protagonists, and the audience is left with a strange little dilemma. In some films, it isn't necessary to sympathise with the characters. The right kind of drama works whether or not there is empathy between viewer and onscreen figure: other elements can carry a film, and an unsympathetic hero can even be a virtue if handled correctly. But a genre film like Attack the Block is partly reliant on audience identification. Without it and our instinctive need for the heroes to survive and prevail, there is no suspense, no tension, and the film malfunctions at the most basic narrative level.
Cornish seems to understand this and so his film does its damnedest to humanise and explain the actions of its youthful heroes over the next hour. The mugging is even confronted directly when they are forced into an alliance with their victim and her righteous accusatory anger demands some sort of explanation. That this is never satisfactorily given is down to the nature of the film. This is a sci-fi thriller which owes a big debt to the early work of John Carpenter (it begins with a shot of an object falling from the stars towards earth ala Carpenter's The Thing or John McTiernan's Predator), meaning it moves quickly, aiming for tautness and narrative economy. The few baggier passages are the comic scenes - mainly involving Luke Treadaway's middle class drug dealer - which leaves little room for character development. Cornish gives his ghetto heroes a few slightly political bits of dialogue - they wonder if the government created the aliens to "kill black boys" just like they did with drugs, and one wonders why the Mugging victims boyfriend does charity work with children in Ghana instead of in London - but generally they are too busy fleeing and fighting to become fully realised figures, despite a Quick montage of their home lives. In a film about young minority lower class youth written and directed by a Middle Class White forty something media professional, I found that quite problemmatic.
But that's not what Attack the Block is really about. Really it's about genre thrills, and it delivers those efficiently, on it's modest scale, with a few exciting and scary sequences. It utilises its tower block location with imagination and wit, rattles along for the most part, has some solid laughs amidst the gore, and feels quite original in its high concept mix of sci-fi, horror, comedy, gang drama and action film. It also contains a nice Basement Jaxx score, which Cornish uses well.
He shows real promise here, and his future career could be interesting. I just hope he avoids the ghetto tourism next time...