By Guest Contributor Emma Felber
Telling the story of the night aliens came to the hood, Attack the Block juxtaposes homicidal extraterrestrials with gangs of disaffected black and mixed-race teenagers in housing estates in the same way its’ sibling-in-production Shaun of the Dead, pitted zombies against twentysomething white everydudes.
Like Simon Pegg’s Shaun, who seemed to be sleepwalking through life until waking up to find everyone trying to eat his brain, these kids from the block are living a story of alienation and violence when they’re plunged head first into serious bloodshed – with serious aliens. But when it becomes clear there’s a battle to be fought, they’re first out to defend their homes. After all, with fireworks, samurai swords, machetes, baseball bats and daring on hand, they’re equipped for it – and practised. “Walking around expecting to get jumped at any moment?” one quips. “Feels like a normal day in the endz to me, blud.”
The story begins on Bonfire Night (an annual festival of fire and explosions) and fireworks are shooting across the sky of South London. Pretty, white Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is surrounded, then roughed up, by a group of hooded black teenagers on bikes, who rob her of her wallet and jewelry. Indistinct in the night, with bandannas covering their faces, the teenagers are a wall of menace, and after the fact their frightened victim spits out over a cup of tea with a neighbour, “they’re f-cking monsters.” But by the end of the film, it’s clear that hoods on bikes aren’t monsters – at least, not compared to great fearsome befanged things from outer space, or, in the words of the protagonists, “giant gorilla wolf motherf-ckers.”
As the battle proceeds, the interwoven characters build up distinct personalities: Moses (John Boyega), the silent leader with a stone-cold thousand-yard-stare; Jerome, (Leeon Jones) is the thinker of the bunch; charming, hyperactive motor-mouth Pest (Alex Esmail); hype man Dennis (Franz Drameh), junior Biggs (Simon Howard) and two even smaller tag-alongs whose gangster posturing is aided by a cap pistol and a SuperSoaker.
Pithy commentaries on race, inequality, police violence and lack of opportunity are strewn throughout the film, but never drag it into being po-faced. The pitch-black shaggy monsters are “blacker than my cousin Femi;” the aliens, it’s decided, are invading the estate because “they’re looking for a fight;” and most seriously, the kids are on their own: calling the police would only result in their own arrest.
Bereft of any support, the gang have only each other to rely on as they try to evade the cops, the local gang kingpin and the fanged horde. And while the latter get more screentime, it’s the boys’ persecution by the police that adds a sinister note of believability to the proceedings At one point, Moses speculates the source of the alien infestation might be the police. “First they sent guns, then drugs, now monsters,” he surmises. “We ain’t killing each other fast enough, so they sent aliens along to speed up the process.”
The movie starts off fast-paced and builds up from there; there’s enough hair-trigger tension, menace and genuinely scary moments to satisfy anyone looking for a straightforward action film. But it’s also pervaded by humour ranging from surreal to acidly satirical, and a great deal of warmth.
Comic relief is provided by the trustafarian drip Brewis (Luke Treadaway), who comes to the block looking to score weed and gets more than he bargained for, and also by Nick Frost’s relaxed, affectionately sleazy local drug dealer, Ron. The film also has a lot of fun with the characters’ youth, and never lets the street fighting and bravado obscure the fact that our heroes range in age from nine and a half to 15 years old. The mismatch between their gaucheness and the vicious, heavy-handed world of drugs and weapons in which they have to operate is mined for laughs, and then later, for pathos. For most of the actors, it is their debut: they were recruited for their own proximity and first-hand knowledge of the kind of estate life which is featured.
The boys’ relationship with each other, far more than any ineffective family figure, is at the core of what they are out to defend. In that way, this becomes a sort of multidirectional buddy movie. The street London patois of their dialogue is sprinkled with “cuz,” “bruv,” “blood” and “fam,” not without reason; their bond and their loyalty is to each other and to “the block.” It also informs an eventual apology to Sam.
The block itself comes into its own as a setting: the grim inhuman geometry of housing estates makes for a dystopian fortress suddenly under siege. Shot at night, with dim lights flickering off wet pavement and any number of long corridors, sharp corners and twisting staircases, it brings home the hostility of the environment just as the boys show their mastery of it. It is the way that the street gang occupy the space of the estate – that same habit of roaming proprietorially with bicycles and dogs in tow, seen by the state and media as antisocial behaviour – that makes it possible for them to confront the invaders in a fair fight. The cold, sinister backdrop of the estate throws the lively and sharp human drama into relief.
Attack the Block has a solid redemption narrative running through the gun battles and gory death-by-alien scenes. Its setting is also provocatively familiar to any Londoner, complete with betting shops and a clapped-out pizza delivery moped. As a commentary on alienation, it punches its point across: that the “lost boys” who escape from parental control, or who never had it, those boys who sell weed and set off fireworks and mug nice white ladies, can form a line of defence around humankind, with the bravery and integrity to stand up to this threat.
The idea that young black men can be made to seem human when juxtaposed with shrieky, ravening aliens is perhaps not so progressive as the film would like to be, but nonetheless it supplies energy, thrills, laughs and pathos to the end.