The best genre movies (as in horror, sci-fi, and fantasy) often blend a healthy dose of reality in with all the unbelievable. Dawn of the Dead is about surviving a zombie apocalypse, but it’s also about cultural rot that consumerism tries to conceal. E.T. is a movie about a kid befriending an alien, but it’s also about dealing with a divorce. Princess Mononoke is about an exiled prince trying to cure a terrible curse, but it’s also about how humans exploit and abuse the environment (like pretty much every Miyazaki film). Whether it’s through subtext or loudly proclaimed over and over, these movies show that a different setting can illuminate ideas that might be ignored or taken for granted. Attack the Block is one of those movies.
It all begins with a mugging. Sam (Jodie Whittaker, the new Doctor Who and also the lady from that episode of Black Mirror with life replays), a young nurse, is surrounded by a gang of masked teenagers who hold her at knifepoint. They take her stuff but are interrupted when a meteorite smashes into a nearby car. Sam runs away in the confusion while the leader of the gang, Moses (John Boyega, the guy from Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit which co-starred Will Poulter from Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) investigates, hoping to loot something worthwhile from the vehicle. Instead he’s attacked by a strange, terrifying creature which leaves three large gashes on his face. The monster runs off and Moses pursues, vowing to kill the beast. And kill it he does: he and the gang find it in an empty shack and beat and stab it to death.
Claiming the alien carcass as a prize, the gang returns to their home: Wyndham Estates a council estate in Brixton. If, like me, you’re an American who thinks those words sound fancy, this feels a lot like how the projects are depicted in our media. Moses and the others head to the penthouse apartment of local drug dealer Ron (Nick Frost from The World’s End which also featured Rafe Spall from the Black Mirror Christmas special), where they ask to keep the corpse until they can sell it to the highest bidder in the morning. Suddenly, dozens more meteorites come crashing down to the earth, seemingly all within this one neighborhood in London. The boys all agree there’s only one thing to do: grab some weapons and take out those would-be invaders.
This time, the aliens are a lot tougher to fight. This latest batch are bigger and much more dangerous than the first one. They’re freakier too, covered in pure black fur that makes them almost invisible, save for their glowing teeth. It’s pretty cool, especially since as far as I can tell, the monsters are entirely practical effects – just dudes in costumes running on all fours, like in 2001. This movie came out a few months before Rise of the Planet of the Apes, just to give you some context of how much of a throwback this approach was.
Make no mistake, first-time writer-director Joe Cornish wanted Attack the Block to be a throwback. When talking about his inspiration for making this movie, Cornish said he idolized directors who bit off more than they could chew with their first films, citing Spielberg’s Duel, Scott’s The Duelists, and Cameron’s The Terminator. Like them, he wanted to be in a situation where his cinematic ambitions far exceeded his budget, forcing him to invent creative solutions. Attack the Block shows a whole alien invasion, but sets it mostly in one building, so mission accomplished. Cornish also said his other goal was to do something American films from the Eighties did well but he hadn’t seen in a British movie before: marry social realism and fantasy.
So as the battles leave the gang increasingly desperate, the movie peels away layers of toughness to find the lonely, insecure kids hiding underneath. They’re not fighting the aliens because they’re violent, but because it’s their home and they’re proud of it. And they know that the police won’t help them, they’ll just make this situation worse. These ideas are presented pretty bluntly, but that doesn’t mean they don’t resonate. The ending of Attack the Block especially makes it loud and clear what preconceptions the film wants its audience to reconsider. Wrap that in a fun sci-fi horror package and you get a movie that would have been one of my favorites had I seen it when I was the same age as its characters.