Review - "Attack The Block" (A Genre Mash-Up That Should Have Been Better Than It Is)

by Tambay A. Obenson
June 29, 2011 1:41 AM
10 Comments
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I didn’t just want to like this movie; I wanted to love it! I wanted to walk out of the theater exhilarated by the experience, so that I could rush home and type up a review for you all to read, that was unabashed in my enthusiasm for what I’d seen, strongly encouraging everyone reading to run to whatever their local theater of preference is, and pay the price of admission to see the film, helping to ensure it’s an opening weekend box office smash, when it’s released in theaters on July 29th.

I wanted to love it; but, alas, I just... liked it. Now, that should be good enough I suppose. I certainly didn’t say that I hated it, nor did I actually hate it. But, given how much I’d heard and read about the film since its North American debut at the South by Southwest Film Festival this past March in Austin, Texas - the critical and commercial buzz has been near-deafening, suggesting that it’s perfect summer fare - my expectations were extremely high!

So, maybe that makes it my “problem,” if I can even call it that, and I could really just summarize this review of the film by saying that you should lower your expectations, assuming they are just as high as mine were, going into the screening I attended late last week.

And maybe that explains my delay in writing this, because, ordinarily, if I was really moved by a film, whether positively or negatively, as long as my reaction was strong and immediate, I’d have written about it within 24 to 48 hours.

Attack The Block, unfortunately, while I appreciated the ride, just didn’t really grab me. I was hoping for the cinematic equivalent of a punch in the mouth; a relentless, exhilarating trip into familiar territory, but with a fresh spin.

It was more like a pull of the cheek. Again, it’s not a bad movie; just not the one I thought I’d see, and thus, it left me a little disappointed. Sorry!

I’m sure I’m in the tiny minority here, and I know there’s a concerted effort to drum up excitement for the film, leading up to its July 29th stateside release, so that it does well when it opens; and I actually thought about whether I would be negatively affecting its box office potential by not singing along with the acclaim chorus; but, damnit, I have to be honest here! :)

Aliens attack the hood… for once. Yay! That’s the pull… at least, for me it was. Especially after the release of one of this summer’s most anticipated movies – J.J. Abrams’ alleged homage to Steven Spielberg of old, Super 8, which centers on a group of white kids in a small Ohio town in the 1970s, whose adventures into film-making with their Super 8mm camera are interrupted by a train crash carrying an alien life form. Naturally, chaos reigns in the aftermath.

And here was another “alien attacks” movie also centered on a group of kids - with this one being of special importance because its story features that rare onscreen occurrence in which the alien, or aliens in this case, invade a predominantly urban (read: black) neighborhood.

The film’s tag line says it all: “INNER CITY VS OUTER SPACE.” And the often vilified, bureaucratically-victimized young black boys who live in “da hood” actually save the day for a change! It all sounds quite revolutionary, doesn’t it?

So what’s the problem?

I’ve been thinking about that over the last few days, and it’s not one clearly identifiable thing. It starts off with a blast, and promises something altogether fresh, but then it just falls back into standard conventions of the genre; actually, really, it’s a mash-up of different genres; many have classified it as a horror movie, but, as I saw it, it was really more of a comedy, action, sci-fi, mystery thriller. And maybe that’s part of the problem here; it’s suffering from an identity crisis. Not that films can’t successfully exist in different genres; but I’m not sure this one achieves that.

The movie, in brief, pits a group of mostly black kids against an invasion of alien monsters, turning an inner city London tower block into a fortress under siege, and a ragtag group of armed teenagers into heroes... well, really, just one of them.

The cast comprises of mostly unknown actors (which was likely a risk) who do a decent job with their respective roles; although the standout was the leader of the pack, played by John Boyega, who looks eerily like a young Denzel Washington. The 17-year old has future leading man potential.

But the film's attempts to turn sinner into saint with chants of "Moses" at the end (that's Boyega's character's name, which should tell you something about his raison d'etre), after his final act of heroism and redemption, felt unearned, given all that had transpired until those closing moments - especially 2 crucial deaths in this rather close-knit unit/family (as established from the beginning of the film) that I didn't really feel the weight of, in the aftermath.

There’s the novelty as indicated in its premise, and maybe that’s the immediate draw for a lot of us. But that wasn’t enough to keep me fully engaged for its entire running time. It never gets very scary nor very funny enough. And it’s tonal shifts are at times jarring.

But ultimately, I’d say this is a movie for teens; it has some humor, a few frights, and it’s light and frothy enough, moving along quickly at just over 80 minutes in length; and, despite its obvious attempt at social commentary, never really gets weighed down in speechifying and sentimentality.

There’s even a brief exchange on the origins and intent of the aliens that speaks to a universal and warranted paranoia amongst black people, that’s rooted in a mistrust of government, and people in positions of power in general. But if you blinked, you’d miss that moment in the film, and it’s never further explored. Not that I wanted some treatise on the matter, but a seed like that can’t be planted and then not at all nurtured.

I think most will find enough to like about the movie, and feel like they’ve been entertained after seeing it. And, again, I thought it was ok; It's meant to be fun, summer fare. But I think the filmmakers tried to do too much with too little, and once the initial novelty wears off, and the smoke clears, there really isn’t a lot underneath that carried me through to the end of it.

I hoped for an outstanding combination of spectacle and story, with thrills and chills, and also plenty of heart.

But it just never quite takes off the way I wanted and expected it to.

Regardless, you should see it for yourselves; especially if you saw Super 8.

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10 Comments

  • ccdev | July 12, 2011 1:28 AMReply

    excellent review. exactly how i felt after i had watched the movie. i was thinking wtf, how did the film get such good reviews??? dumbing down of a new generation i'd expect but from top reviewers??? same as with thor, .

  • Jay | June 30, 2011 6:08 AMReply

    Sorry Tambay.

    In this review, your biases are showing — and not in a good way.
    Or rather your 'expectations' are informing your judgement.

    Glad you 'liked' it though.

  • AccidentalVisitor | June 29, 2011 10:19 AMReply

    {{{ The UK has been dining out on hoodie horror, we have newspapers such as The Daily Mail and The Express who have done their best to convince Brits that children from economically deprived areas are at best feral }}}


    Which may explain why the most negative writeup of the film I've come across was one a couple of months back from the Daily Mail.

  • Dankwa Brooks | June 29, 2011 10:13 AMReply

    WOW Tambay, I’m surprised you didn’t like it. I LOVED it and I don’t like sh*t! I recently saw ‘Serpico’ for the first time and I’m like…eh. Not really a comparison, but you get what I’m saying, I’m discerning.

    I think maybe your expectations were too high. I always go into a movie COLD. I try not to get my expectations up and don’t really read a lot of reviews BEFORE I see a film. I do see the buzz while I’m surfing the Internet, but I tend NOT to read that stuff before I see a film for myself because as I stated…I’m discerning and I think “oh yeah, let me be the judge of THAT!”

    “I was hoping for the cinematic equivalent of a punch in the mouth; a relentless, exhilarating trip into familiar territory, but with a fresh spin.” Your bad indeed. I had no such expectations.

    Let me also be clear ATB was not the second coming of horror…mash-up or whatever. I labeled it a horror movie. Yes there is a sci-fi element, but it falls into all of the horror movie conventions – teens fighting a common enemy who’s killing all of their friends.

    Again, I went into this cold for I’ve seen movies with tremendous buzz and thought they were cool, but weren’t the second coming either (Viva Riva). I loved this movie because it was a WHOLE LOT OF FUN :). It accomplished what these other teen peril horror movies failed to do, bring the horror, bring the fun. I recently bought Scream 1 & 2 on Blu-Ray (on sale) and watched them both in the same weekend and WOW were they fun and scary. These ‘Final Destinations’ and the like just couldn’t touch movies like the ‘Screams’ and the old ‘Friday the 13ths’ and ‘A Nightmare on Elm Streets’.

    “There’s even a brief exchange on the origins and intent of the aliens that speaks to a universal and warranted paranoia amongst black people, that’s rooted in a mistrust of government, and people in positions of power in general. But if you blinked, you’d miss that moment in the film, and it’s never further explored. Not that I wanted some treatise on the matter, but a seed like that can’t be planted and then not at all nurtured.”

    Again I disagree, I didn’t come to see a horror movie to gain political leanings. Save that sh*t for a drama. I want to see people getting killed and people running for their gotdamn lives! I HATE the fact that every “black” movie has to get all political or heavily involve socio-economic themes. Much like during the press conference at Cannes for ‘Do the Right Thing’ (on the special edition DVD) where the foreign reporters kept asking “where were the drugs?” Spike uncharacteristically didn’t blast off and explained that the movie wasn’t about that and he had bigger themes to explore. I was fine with just that brief mention in ATB. Let’s get back to the killing!

    “And maybe that explains my delay in writing this, because, ordinarily, if I was really moved by a film, whether positively or negatively, as long as my reaction was strong and immediate, I’d have written about it within 24 to 48 hours.”

    Well my reaction was STRONG and immediate and I wasn’t the only one. I saw another local independent filmmaker I knew at the screening and we talked briefly after the screening. He WAS at SXSW and he couldn’t get in to see ATB. He said the buzz there was tremendous and everyone was saying ATB was the ONE to see. I must also state that I’m friends with him on Facebook too and like me he doesn’t like sh*t! and he loved ATB! I also saw a friend of mine (just an avid filmgoer. What’s up Simm.) and he also loved ATB. He also recently told me he liked ATB better than ‘Super 8’. Big surprise, so did I. I liked ‘Super 8’, but was like eh…

    Ultimately I think your expectations were too high Tambay. I really thought it might suck, but it didn’t. I posted my enthusiastic review on my blog - 'Nother Brother Entertainment Blog. I’ve linked the review elsewhere on this site many times so I won’t become a sore thumb and do it again. If you’re so inclined Google my blog where you can also see my smiling face :) <<~That wasn’t it.

  • AccidentalVisitor | June 29, 2011 7:04 AMReply

    Forgot to mention I had a similar reaction to Woody Allen's "Midnight In Paris". Everybody has praised that film, nothing but glowing reviews. And yet I simply "liked" it, I didn't love it.

  • AccidentalVisitor | June 29, 2011 6:55 AMReply

    You like what you like and therefore you must be honest with yourself. Still I had a feeling this wasn't going to be your cup of tea. I must say I'm looking forward to this because outside of your review and a couple of others that were lukewarm, nearly all of the dozens of reviews I have read (from newspapers, mags, moviesites, blogs) have all been extremely positive. In fact of the last 30 reviews I have come across in the past couple of weeks alone this is easily the most negative of the bunch. Hell, even the folks over at Racialicious raved about the flick and I honestly wasn't expecting that. Of course I wasn't expecting everyone to universally love it either, but I admit, tambay, I would have felt even more enthusiastic about the flick if you had joined in on singing the film's praises.

  • James Madison | June 29, 2011 3:55 AMReply

    Good review. I was just reading a piece about mixed genre's and how going into the theater expecting one thing, but experiencing something different.

    Cross genre can happen, but the filmmaker has to be careful. One of the genre's must be more dominant than the other and the tone has to be consistent between the two. (Or however many genres are used)

    Also the points you made about the social commentary and higher authority, I'm sure could have made for a more compelling film had it been more explored.

    I'm looking forward to seeing Attack The Block and hope that it lives up to my expectations.

  • Dee | June 29, 2011 3:29 AMReply

    Oh Dear. Sounds like Harry Knowles Inception review syndrome...

    It's a mash up only as much as say, Dawn of the Dead is a mash-up. Which it isn't.

    Agree with many of your points but what Attack the Block has; is heart.

    Some of the films weaknesses come from its process: That of getting the young actors to improvise their dialogue and actually asking what they thought of their situation. (Hence the clumsy ghetto conspiracy stuff which sounds half baked even when Chuck D tells it) Empowerment comes with it's own set of challenges and anyone who's tried to cut together improvised dialogue from inexperienced actors knows it's a nightmare.

    As I've posted before ATB is about whose faces young people see on screen, who gets to be the hero. The UK has been dining out on hoodie horror, we have newspapers such as The Daily Mail and The Express who have done their best to convince Brits that children from economically deprived areas are at best feral or at worst soon to be carbon copies of their US counterparts.

    Boyega's on twitter you should try and get an interview.

    It's not perfect but for a Maiden effort Joe Cornish gets more respect from me than the insular Edgar Wright.

  • Dankwa Brooks | June 29, 2011 1:35 AMReply

    I get your points Tambay. Understood :)

  • tambay | June 29, 2011 1:00 AMReply

    Just to be clear here, before folks start misquoting me... I didn't say I didn't like the movie! As I repeated in my review, I just didn't LOVE it - not as much as I expected and hoped to, given all the hype leading up to my screening of it. And so it was disappointing in that sense. I really wanted to love it!

    So, yes, as I said, and as Dankwa noted, maybe it was just a case of my expectations being too damn high. And I owned up to that in the first half of my review.

    And also, in response to Dankwa's suggestion that every “black” movie doesn't have to "get all political or heavily involve socio-economic themes"... again, to be clear, I didn't imply that had to be the case here or elsewhere. As I said, I wasn't expecting some dissertation on the themes introduced; HOWEVER, the film and filmmakers did intentionally litter the film with "messages." And once you start down that path, you can't just abandon the mines you planted, and pretend they were never there in the first place.

    The film tries to get us to care about these kids, notably in one scene that I thought was handled somewhat clumsily, in which the young white lady goes through Moses' apartment, seeing the squalor he lives in, as Moses offers her background info on his living situation - his father (or was it his uncle) not being there for him, and having to fend for and take care of himself, etc. It was one of those tonal shifts that seemed off and completely unnecessary. I get that the scene was meant to draw our sympathy for this bad-ass kid, and also offer commentary on the marginalization and disenfranchisement of young black men like himself; but it just felt like something that was dropped in there without much thought as to what its ripple effects might be.

    The same thing goes for the scene in which Moses suggests that the aliens are some kind of government conspiracy to eradicate black people. That's really interesting, but also very heavy stuff! You can't just drop shit like that in the middle of heads being bloodily smashed in by said aliens, and then forget that any of it was ever introduced by the time we get to the next scene, 2 minutes later.

    If they wanted to make a movie about "people getting killed and people running for their gotdamn lives" then they should've just left all that other shit out; they betrayed that by trying to get cutesy and smart with the social commentary. And if they wanted to make commentary, then I'd instead suggest that they reach back into their film school 101 manuals, and revisit the part about showing instead of telling.

    And even as a straight comedy horror movie, once you get past the novelty of the "unfamiliar" location it takes place in, it's just another conventional creature feature. And that's perfectly fine, by the way! Nothing wrong with that. I was just expecting more than the simplified "aliens attack the hood" description I gave it.

    I think folks will be entertained for the most part. I was, especially in the first half of it. I hoped for something more than what I got, which, again, goes back to what I said about my expectations being too high.

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