Attack the Block
You can’t blame the makers of modern-day visceral thrillers and action films for turning to special effects in order to outdo those that came before them. As filmmaking technology advances, it is the natural course for a type of entertainment that relies largely upon providing spectacle, and such approaches to filmmaking can indeed yield fun movies. However, Attack the Block proves that the fundamental laws of script-backed filmmaking still hold strong, even in movies based on visceral concepts. With a somewhat typical alien invasion premise, this film is able to pull you into both its drama and its action purely by focusing on creating and developing real characters.
At the beginning of the film, we follow a woman named Sam as she walks through London to her apartment at night. Soon she encounters a gang of teenage street thugs, led by a peer named Moses, who threaten her, rob her, and run off. Afterward, Sam finds solace in a good Samaritan’s apartment, and the kids who robbed her find ... a vicious alien. After killing the creature, they head back to a friend’s apartment to determine if the thing they’ve killed is, in fact, an extraterrestrial. From here they find themselves hunted by more of the same: creatures that appear to be wolf-gorilla hybrids with pitch black fur and glowing blue teeth. Eventually, Sam and the kids will meet back up and have to help each other out in order to survive.
While the spotlight is shared between Sam and the thugs, as the teenagers attempt to save their “block” (apartment building) from the invading beasts and Sam attempts to find safety from the aliens and her attackers, most of the screen time is spent with the gang. This is where writer/director Joe Cornish’s talent comes in. As we watch the kids interact with each other and periodically attempt to fight off the aliens, we begin to relate to and even like them. This change in our attitude toward them begins as early as a few minutes after the opening robbery. The interesting thing about this, however, is that we begin liking them even though they don’t do anything particularly admirable. They are still the same characters we saw in the beginning, and their attempt to kill the creatures is simply a way of them retaining dominion over what they view as their territory. Instead, our liking of them stems from the fact that they are fully realized and fleshed-out by Cornish, so we are able to view them as people – young people with difficult lives – instead of simple criminals. They aren’t even complex, and they don’t have to be. We begin to root for them simply because they’re real.
Also because they are real, the more action-oriented portions of the film are heightened in intensity, despite not being shot in original or surprising ways. Scenes involving the main characters killing or being chased by the creatures carry significant thrills because we have developed an emotional investment in those characters’ survival. There is one slow-motion scene near the end, in which Moses is forced to race through a room full of the aliens. It is mostly a simple matter, as he runs through the room dodging threats and jumping recliners, but it is also more exciting than your average action scene because we feel a sense of triumph for our character who, as an average human being, is besting these killer animals from another planet. If it was a less-developed character, it would simply have been a showcase of action-scene choreography, probably complemented by fast edits, and it might look cool, but we would have felt much less.
There is a poignant moment in the film, where Sam enters the apartment Moses shares with his uncle. Upon doing so, she sees that there is a Spider-Man comforter on his bed. Immediately, whatever dislike we still had for the character is lost. Though he doesn’t act or look like it, Moses is a child, and as such, for us to resent him makes no sense, regardless of his actions. It is the understated emotional climax of a film that does what many of the best works of art do: slowly change our perception of things until we end up with a mindset opposite from that with which we began.
It has some original elements, but nothing about Attack the Block stands out as particularly inventive or new. Instead, it tells a fundamentally strong story about redemption and understanding others’ points of view, and as a bonus, it has some threatening monsters. It is proof that not even monster movies have to have copious action or flare to be engaging.