Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review: Attack the Block (2011)

Attack the Block (2011)

Rated R for creature violence, drug content and pervasive language

Score: 5 out of 5

We've seen aliens attack in big cities, small towns, and farms. We've seen them blow up the White House and infiltrate sleepy suburbs. But when was the last time we saw a movie about aliens invading the ghetto? We've had Alien Nation and District 9 that touched on the subject, but those we're about (by and large) peaceful visitors. It's been a really long time (if ever) since we've seen a movie about evil aliens deciding to fry Detroit with tripods (jokes in Scary Movie 4 notwithstanding) or mass-probe the South Bronx. Well, leave it to the British of all people to make just that movie. Attack the Block is a horror-comedy about what happens when a bunch of alien monsters make the mistake of going up against the multiracial, working-class street toughs of a South London housing project. And it is absolutely awesome. It's smart, it's funny, it's scary, it's got some great characters anchoring a straightforward plot, it's got excellent special effects, and it is badass. I've seen this movie several times, and it never fails to impress me on just about every level.

At its core, this is basically Gremlins in the 'hood, only with even more bite behind its bark. Major characters get killed off, and  quite violently at that, as a horde of big, ugly, gorilla-wolf monsters from outer space runs through the projects. The set pieces are small in scope, but wild all the same, with monster beatdowns, bloody attacks, a chase on bikes and motor scooters through the alleys, an intensely claustrophobic scene in a hallway filled with smoke from fireworks, and battles all throughout the projects, set to a mix of British hip-hop and reggae and an excellent electronica score by Basement Jaxx. Director Joe Cornish manages to make it all look gritty and realistic, yet spectacular all the same. The monsters look amazing thanks to a combination of icky practical effects augmented by restrained CGI work that created monsters that look vaguely like Earth animals, yet are still truly out of this world. What's more, the film has a great sense of humor about itself. The protagonists' reference points for the alien invasion come from sci-fi and fantasy movies, with one of them remarking that "it's raining Gollums" when he gets his first look at the smaller, hairless female alien. Their first thought when they kill it is to use its corpse to go on the news and become rich and famous, and when more show up, their first reaction is to head out with blades, baseball bats, and fireworks (because guns are rare in England) to kick some alien ass. When shit starts to get real, Pest wishes he'd just stayed home and played video games that night. Several characters exist purely for comic relief, such as the weed dealer Ron (Nick Frost), his college student customer Brewis, and the nine-year-old wannabe gangstas Probs and Mayhem, and not only are they genuinely funny, but they actually prove themselves useful over the course of the film! This is a film that's packing style in spades, a street-smart attitude and sense of humor to match.

What makes Attack the Block truly stand out, however, is that it doesn't just use its tower block setting as a backdrop for alien mayhem (though it does do plenty of that). Rather, the ghetto is as much a character as the humans. Moses (John Boyega), our lead protagonist, is a fifteen-year-old boy who's been forced to grow up way too fast, living with a deadbeat uncle in a dingy apartment, and it's implied that his friends Jerome, Dennis, Biggz, and Pest are much the same way, with parents who are either incompetent or afraid of their kids. The youngsters Probz and Mayhem have to interact with hardened criminals like the drug dealer Hi-Hatz on a daily basis due to them being neighbors in the tower block, which has already started to warp their mindset. The film refuses to make excuses for its protagonists' actions, most notably when they rob the young nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) only to be forced to rely on her later when one of their own is badly injured by the aliens. She bitterly dismisses their justifications, most notably when Moses says that he wouldn't have robbed her if he'd known she lived in the tower block (implying that, had she not lived in the block, it would've been A-OK). What the film does do, however, is empathize with them and the terrible situation they've grown up in. When they rob Sam in the opening, they look almost as scared as she is (perhaps why they cover their faces when they do so). Moses likely wouldn't have turned to slinging drugs and mugging people if he saw a better way to advance himself in society. All of them likely would've called the police instead of trying to take matters into their own hands if they felt that they wouldn't be treated like criminals and suspected of causing the chaos themselves. It builds a cast of "bad boys" who feel legitimately tough and incredibly flawed as people, but are still sympathetic and have the capacity to do good and learn from their mistakes.

John Boyega is undoubtedly the standout in the cast as Moses, playing the guy who gets the most development out of the whole crew. It's through him that we see all the pressures of life in the projects, and his reactions to both them and the alien invasion, and he crafts a multi-layered, charismatic character who's tough, yet human all the same. The attention that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been getting him is very well-deserved. The actors playing the other kids, composed of unknowns scouted from schools in South London, bring the same authenticity to their roles as well, getting a ton of great zingers and moments to shine. Jodie Whittaker plays Sam, the outsider who starts off rightly skeptical of Moses and his friends but slowly comes to see them as having more in common with her than it may seem, and not just through their shared struggle to survive, and she too does a great job at selling this transformation. Jumayn Hunter hits the right note of evil as the human villain, the ruthless gangster Hi-Hatz, somebody who's utterly despicable but who you can't help but admire as he proves himself, on his own, to be the most badass individual in the film. Finally, we get Nick Frost and Luke Treadaway as the main funnymen, Ron and Brewis. Both of them are massive stoners, but this isn't their only defining characteristic, as they are smart guys in their own right who manage to figure out a number of important facts about the aliens' biology by extrapolating from the Earth-based nature documentaries that they love to watch while blazed. Everybody in this movie was great, and clearly having a blast making it.

The Bottom Line:

This is a movie that still holds up every time I watch it, and now that Star Wars has boosted John Boyega's career immeasurably, here's hoping that this cult classic gets rediscovered and earns the respect that it deserves. It's an amazing horror-comedy on the same level as many of its inspirations from the '80s, a highly entertaining B-movie with style and heart to spare. Brap brap brap!

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