Attack the Block is very much done in the vein of its campy forefathers Night of the Comet and Night of the Creeps. But unlike those films and the many others that dominated the 1970’s and 1980’s by having various sorts of aliens falling from the sky and into our backyards, director/writer Joe Cornish presents a battle between race and class, not just humans and aliens.
No, Cornish certainly isn’t trying to slam morality down your throat in an attempt to change the world. I don’t think he’s even trying to send a message. Instead, Cornish locates his film in a more unsafe block in South London, where some of the local youth lack guidance of responsible adults and find themselves getting in trouble more often than they should.
Leading the gang is Moses, a young black boy who is quickly earning the respect of the most prominent drug dealer in the area. He’s spiraling deeper and deeper into trouble. The film opens to his gang robbing the innocent (and conveniently white) Sam.
The real key to the success Cornish has in Attack the Block really exists in his direction. The screenplay, which has all the race and class struggle you could ever want in an alien invasion film, is only there to supplant what Cornish has in store for your average and diehard fan of comedy/science fiction films. With the arrival of weird, wolf-like aliens from outer space, Cornish sends the gang of troubled youths into a frenzy, giving them an enemy other than the police. Cornish has a lot of surprises, twists and turns along the way – nothing mindblowing, but interesting enough to really make the film stand out in a crowded genre.
His direction, including a few dire and desperate scenes late in the film, is fascinating. The boys use fireworks to clear out a hallway of these aliens and in doing so fill it with smoke. Cornish presents a dizzying and hazy picture on screen, where we along with the characters lose sense of our balance and location, becoming confused in the frenzy of the fight. Cornish is spectacularly good at finding these clever ways to show what would normally be common scenes.
Now where the strong screenplay and its commentary on society comes in handy is in the same way George A. Romero’s social commentary in his zombie films did. Like Romero’s zombie films, Attack the Block isn’t so much about the creature everyone needs to kill to keep surviving. It is instead a meditation to society’s reaction to the situation. This film would be worlds different had Cornish wrote in four or five everyday white suburban youths rather than the mix of races he instead used. The young boys are aware of their standing in society. While they don’t accept it, they also don’t fight it.
Because Cornish has such strength in character it doesn’t matter that the aliens he unleashes into London are such vague and one-dimensional threats to society. We don’t know anything about them, we don’t know what they’re after and we don’t know why they’ve landed. We just learn the truths about people. Like Sam, the out of place young woman who re-encounters the young boys who mugged her and must judge and decide on their character while transgressing through the chaos. The struggles are as much internal as they are external in Attack the Block.
Now don’t get me wrong here: this isn’t a serious, meditative film. It’s funny, schlocky and can be seen as a pure joyride. But by putting enough thought into its heart, Attack the Block has the emotion and brains to proceed forward as a film more worthwhile than it would be had it just been a group of boys, not impacted by their attachment and relation to society, killing a bunch of giant hairy apes from outer space with machetes, knives, guns and fireworks.