« Road to Nowhere | Main | Coffee Break »

September 01, 2011

Attack the Block

attack the block 1.jpg

Joe Cornish - 2011
Screen Gems 35mm film

There is a shot in Attack the Block of a young man hanging outside his apartment building, holding onto the British flag, the Union Jack. The young man, pointedly named Moses, has trapped the alien creatures in his apartment, jumped out the window, and his holding on for his life. Especially in light of the recent riots in England, the symbolism shouldn't be missed. Certainly, Attack the Block can be enjoyed simply for its surface pleasures of resourceful kids versus creatures from outer space, but there is more to it than that.

The kids in fact live in what the British call council flats. Poor, mostly black, and casually criminal, these are not the youth idealized in something from Steven Spielberg. One of the more interesting choices Joe Cornish has made is to break from the standard science fiction narrative where the characters are usually white and more or less middle class. Nor is there a scientist in the bunch. The closest there is to someone with a modicum of scientific knowledge is a stoner who may have understood that what may be happening is, at least in intention, hardly an alien invasion. Cornish also does something radical in his introduction of the kids to cause them to work to gain the sympathy of the audience.

attack the block 2.jpg

The action takes in and around one of the council flats where the boys live. The one young woman who joins them, only because she sees it as the only way to survive, is named Sam. While Attack the Block does not recall Howard Hawks in the same way that the films of John Carpenter do, there are some parallels to be found here. Most significantly is that Cornish centers his film on a small group that has to take on an outside force that is bigger and more powerful, and can only rely on their own abilities. Any additional help would be too late, if it came at all. By having the female character named Sam, it announces that at least during this situation, she is one of the boys, and entitled to take action along with the others. What makes this different from a Hawks film, or even a Carpenter film, is that Sam is a woman, while the boys are just that, boys, who are stumbling in their efforts to establish themselves as men.

There is no simple description for the space monsters other than, as the boys do, describe them as resembling a combination of bear, gorilla and wolf. In full shots, these creatures made me think of the unholy spawn of the titular Alien and Oscar the Grouch. Their most noticeable feature is their double set of sharp, phosphorescent teeth. Cornish has learned the lessons from the better recent creature features, like Alien and Pitch Black, so that what is seen of the creatures is mostly some very quick shots where we don't see much, but we see enough to put the audience on edge. The action takes place in a building called Wyndham Tower, perhaps named after the British science fiction writer, notably of Day of the Triffids, where alien creatures act less out of deliberate malice than from biological imperative.

But back to the boy and the flag . . . Attack the Block is about territory, or at least the illusion of territory. Moses and his gang act in their own misguided way in the name of their building and neighborhood when they are first introduced. A drug dealer in the building claims ownership regarding criminal activity when he recruits Moses to work for him. The police, when they appear, are there on behalf of the state to primarily keep those people that might grudgingly be called citizens in their respective places. The alien appear in this out of the way part of south London based also on a territorial claim that may have been in intention once it is established that the creatures are acting on animal instinct. Ultimately, Moses learns the hard way that actions have consequences, and takes a few steps towards a kind of adulthood that exists on other planet than the one inhabited by the cuddly kids and aliens in a Spielbergian universe.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 1, 2011 08:22 AM