***originally written 16 May 2011***
I try to leave pre-conceptions at the door as much as possible. The old cliché ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ has endured for a reason; you can never truly know what sort of an experience you are going to be subjected to when someone asks for your time to tell you a story, be it a book, a play, or a film. When it comes to movies the people who put together the film posters and the trailers have a tough responsibility – their representations of the full product have to lure in an audience without tipping their hand too much. They can work purposefully to accurately whet appetites or to cannily deceive (like making Black Swan look like a smouldering romance or The Other Guys look actually funny by using footage not in the damn movie). Why do I bring any of this up? Because when I first saw the trailer for Attack The Block I was struck by two different reactions. 1) an alien invasion in a British council estate – what a simple, brilliant set-up, and 2) oh shit, another intolerable movie about chavs.
Because let’s face it, is there a more untrusted, reviled or simply feared minority group than this country’s working class youths? No. Even I’m guilty of this pre-conception. I cross the street to avoid the gangs of kids hanging out on McDonald’s doorstep, and after dark have been known to adjust my route home by quite some distance just to avoid a gang of hooded teens doing… well, nothing much really. So, I figured Attack The Block would be a tiresome hour an half that either glamourised antisocial behaviour or worse attempted to make it funny. I went into the screening ready to be disappointed.
Early on it seemed as though my suspicions were to be confirmed. Our bunch of anti-heros – a rabble of convincingly played South London youths – are introduced to us as they mug a frightened nurse (Jodie Whittaker). It’s nasty and realistic. I’ve had similar terrifying experiences with similar crowds. Then, surprisingly quickly, the sci-fi element of the film crashes in – literally – and this was really the last that I was distracted by my own fears of what the film might be. Because I simply wasn’t given time to contemplate it. Attack The Block burns along at a staggering pace, fantastically economical, always driving forward. It’s a 90 minute movie that feels like a 60 minute one, never letting up to make you wonder the time remaining, always ready with another little set piece or twist in the action.
Director Joe Cornish’s debut feature is very assured, very determined. I particularly enjoyed the way in which he shot the tower block; his camera swooping down and gliding into mezzanines and car parks, faintly recalling the way in which Fincher’s cameras zoom around the New York townhouse in Panic Room. He is also clearly a keen fan of John Carpenter movies, as Attack The Block quickly becomes a ‘submarine’ movie; trapping it’s heroes in a defined space and leaving them to their own resources to save themselves, echoing The Thing and Assault On Precinct 13. Cornish’s monsters are also impressively original and feel genuinely threatening. The Carpenter-esque high-water-mark is an expertly crafted sequence involving a smoke-filled corridor in which the monsters lurk menacingly just out of eye-shot.
The young actors are all impressive and feel authentic. I found their text-speak and slang hard to follow – I’m not down with the kids – far more difficult to translate than the droogs of A Clockwork Orange (another obvious reference point) and this could possibly prove to be an obstacle for some. More crucially, aside from a couple of younger kids thrown in for comic relief and a thoroughly weak appearance from Nick Frost, everyone in Attack The Block is playing it straight. This is no gurning comedy piece.
Not that it doesn’t try to be.
And that may be Attack The Block‘s biggest shortcoming; when it does go for laughs it doesn’t get them. Time and again a line is set-up to get the audience tittering, but – in the screening I was in at least – these moments failed almost totally. As such they felt like uncomfortable moments that brought you out of the reality, like the actors were all suddenly breaking the 4th wall and winking at you. One wonders whether things would’ve worked out more effectively still if the movie had been played out without these feeble attempts at humour, instead of reaching for the comedy/horror highs of An American Werewolf In London or Shaun Of The Dead. It’s simply not very funny.
And it hasn’t changed my mind about ‘hoodie’ crowds. Mugging a terrified nurse is still deplorable. But it didn’t try to change my mind. That wasn’t the point here. Turns out the point of Attack The Block is an hour and a half of thrilling entertainment. And whilst they maybe be nasty little thugs, I’d prefer to spend 90 minutes in the company of these kids than The Goonies any day.
I’ve brought up a number of other films as reference points whilst talking about Attack The Block, but I’d like to finish by pointing out that this should not be seen as detrimental to Joe Cornish’s accomplishment here. This is not a film built out of the pieces of other movies. This is an assured debut, a pleasant surprise, and hopefully a taster for greater things to come.