Attack the Block (2011)

Directed by Joe Cornish

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Attack the Block moves quickly.  It has the feel of an Edgar Wright movie, with fast action, quick dialogue and little time to waste.  The story takes place in South London over the course of one night.  A young gang, led by Moses (John Boyega), intimidates a woman walking on her own, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), and mugs her.  Moments later something rockets out of the sky, crashing into a car only feet away, like a downed comet.  Moses investigates and faced with some sort of alien that scurries away.  The boys pursue, and Moses kills the alien.  The movie, in this way, begins with a bang, and this small victory serves to make the boys somehow more cocky than they already were, and the movie is built on these fast-talking, video-game obsessed kids.  An alien is nothing to them, and that’s central to the humor of the film.

I will get more into the plot shortly, but what differentiates this story from any number of the similar alien invasion stories is the group of protagonists.  Though still just kids, they’re violent and prideful, and an alien isn’t much different than someone in a different gang.  The point of this movie is to show how a different group of heroes would react against this kind of invasion.  In other invasion movies, the hero has to run and hide and look for a loved one before eventually, possibly fighting back.  Here, they’re on the attack immediately, and one of the main antagonists isn’t an alien, it’s a drug dealer with a vendetta.

Adding to that, the kids both fear and hate the cops, presenting the third antagonistic force.  This isn’t just a story about aliens, it’s about kids on the fringes of society who aren’t given a fair chance in life and are viewed as less than.  This has given them a forced perspective, and they have been molded in such a way as to hit/stab/shoot/strike first, ask questions second.  All this is to say that when aliens attack, they are trained to respond immediately rather than to hole up and think of what to do next.

The kids fight back with katana swords, fireworks, a baseball bat and knives.  There are even two younger kids who kill one of the aliens using a water gun.  While still in act 1, the police detain Moses for the mugging of Sam, who had given them the suspects’ descriptions.  The aliens kill the two cops as they attack the van, and the kids fight back, killing the aliens.

Not longer after, the group crashes into the car of the drug dealer, Hi-Hatz.  Furious about the damage to his car, Hi-Hatz threatens to kill the boys until the aliens intervene again.  The group gets away and retreats to the “block,” where they live.  One of the boys is bitten in the leg, and when they come across Sam again, learning that she lives in the same building as them, they force themselves into her apartment.  Knowing she is a nurse, they demand that she repair the boy’s leg.  Another alien attacks, which Moses kills with a samurai sword.  Sam decides it’s better to stick with the boys.

They go upstairs to another apartment, that of Moses’ girlfriend, because there is better security at their place (just one added metal gate in front of their door).  Moor aliens arrive, this time through the window, and they realize that the aliens are drawn to Moses for some reason.

It’s not long after that we realize it’s because Moses killed a female alien, the one that first arrived at the beginning of the story.

Moses and the group retreat upstairs to a place owned by Ron (Nick Frost), who works for Hi-Hatz growing weed.  They figure that Ron’s place is the safest in the entire building.  They fight off more aliens in the hallways, this time using fireworks which limit visibility and make for a thrilling, tense scene in which one of the kids is killed, the second one in the group murdered so far.

When they get inside the apartment, they discover that Hi-Hatz is there waiting for them, gun ready.  The aliens of course attack, this time a dozen of them, and they rip apart the violent drug dealer.  The group retreats inside the room where all the weed is grown (and which is the most well-foritfied in the entire building.  Under the black light, they see marks all over Moses, indicating a possible pheromone.  The aliens are all male and attracted to the scene left on Moses by the female he killed.  The concoct a plan in which Sam sneaks downstairs into Moses’ apartment and turns on the gas stove, preparing it for a suicide mission on which Moses will go.

He then rushes out of the growing room, using fireworks to make a distraction, and the aliens rush after him into his apartment.  He lights the fireworks and sets off an explosion, killing all the aliens.  Just before the explosion, however, Moses leaps out the window and hangs on for dear life.

The police come in and arrest him.  He looks set to be charged with murder (and mugging), but the police rely on Sam’s word that the boys saved her life.  The movie ends with Moses hearing the crowd chanting his name, recognizing him as a hero.  He smiles for the first time in the entire movie.

There’s a criticism of films that feature predominantly black casts that are about black stories, yet that rely on a white protagonist through which to tell that story.  Think of Emma Stone in The Help or any movie about a white teacher who goes to an inner city school to make a difference.  This movie has something to say about that.  We should find it ridiculous that Moses, the clear hero of the story, is arrested by the police who seem not to notice the aliens all around them.  In fact, the police don’t really even show up to fight the aliens, and yet there they are, ready to lock up Moses.  Then Moses’ fate depends wholly on what Sam has to say.  It really shouldn’t have to, but it does.

The boys bring this up earlier, when Sam suggests they go to the police.  They tell her that the cops will believe her, but they’ll arrest them, just because of who they are and what they look like.  The police are the enemy, just like the aliens and Hi-Hatz in this story.

So this presents an interesting perspective in this movie.  Because we, as the audience, have no reason to be agains the police, at least early in the story.  They are there to help Sam, who goes to them after the mugging, and then two of them are brutally killed by the aliens.  By all accounts we should feel sympathy for them.  And yet our protagonists don’t look kindly on them, and when they arrests Moses, it’s a confirmation of the boys’ perspective.  When Sam first brings up Moses and his friends in the end, the police are ready to assume she means they hurt her, but she has to clarify that they didn’t.  We can assume that the police will listen to her, and everything will be fine.

The lasting feeling I had was that the system isn’t fixed, but characters like Moses and his friends no longer need to define themselves in opposition to the system.

Some other notes: The action is very well-done.  This doesn’t feel like a low budget movie, but I have to assume it was.  Other than Nick Frost, there isn’t a single recognizable actor (at the time of the movie’s release).  The aliens, though were vivid and unique and terrifying.  The characters were pretty hilarious.  In one scene that stands out, they see the small alien that they kill at the beginning, and, consumed by their own overconfidence, once says, “gotta catch them all” to which another replies, “this isn’t pokemon.”

These lines, quickly delivered and with good timing, demonstrate how the characters speak mostly through references.  They reference Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, FIFA, etc.  They even view these monsters as just another fantastical element of their lives, as if it’s only a video game.  Hell, there’s another great line where they reference the argument that kids today are more violent because of violent video games.  There’s a real social commentary going on here.  It can all be traced back to the mugging at the start of the film.  Sam later observes how scared the kids were, even as they stood around in silhouette, hoods up and carrying knives.

On the surface, this is a gang of violent thugs, but they’re all pretty damn innocent.  They speak in awe of everything even as they boast about anything they deem worthy of a boast.    They speak through video games, toys, movies, television, and they don’t take anything seriously, even if it’s something that is life-threatening.  Their willingness to take on something that could kill them is funny, but on a deeper level it’s a bit tragic.  They face this every day, whether it’s a gun-toting drug dealer or the police.

This movie uses science-fiction to show us a worldview that people forced to the fringe of our culture already experience.

 

 

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