Claustrophobia breeds suspense in science fiction, whether it be on a dank space ship like in “Alien” or a distant desert outpost like Richard Stanley‘s “Hardware.” In “Attack The Block,” which shares some DNA with the two films, we experience what might be a global invasion of serious concern, but because we only see the attack from the perspective of a few street-smart chavs, the crisis has become far more intimate. Consider this “Battle: South London Slums.”
Joe Cornish’s debut film brings us into a fully realized inner city situation, with a group of wandering teens casually mugging an innocent commoner, before their attention is diverted from the crashing meteorite nearby. Because these restless children come from homes not nearly broken as much as apathetic, they seek stimulation anywhere, which leads them to investigate, ready to dislodge a permanent chip on their shoulders.
What emerges is a hyperactive squirt, a furry little demon clad in black, the face only distinguished by a mouth that reveals a row of teeth with a blue neon glow. Horrified at this creature, but more insulted by the intrusion into their territory, the teens dismantle the beast, using fireworks to take the critter’s life, stringing the creature up, the now-scaly monster hanging in effigy.
It’s as good a taunt as any, and soon the skies are raining with even bigger creatures from a distant place, landing in this urban environment with a strong, severe bloodthirst. It’s up to these industrious teens to make a stand, utilizing any number of practical weapons. But wait, you ask, the heroes are thieving, corrupt, criminal teens, correct? How do we root for them?
“Attack The Block” notably doesn’t shy away from showing exactly how dangerous and unreliable these children are, but it presents a compact psychology connecting the dots between the restlessness of growing up in a dead-end world, and reaching out for something to connect with. For these kids, the core group of which are older teens bordering on adulthood, robbing an apartment comes as easily as turning up the radio. Pump up the jams, and loud, or you’ll get a baseball bat to the face.
More importantly, this group is presented not as a unit, but as its own small community. When they converse, slang overlaps from each members’ mouths, each sentence running on into the next, each wary stare met with understanding. This shorthand (and excellent casting and chemistry behind the scenes, most likely) gives us characters that may not necessarily have compassion for each other, but nonetheless are bonded by circumstance, and to them, it’s the only aspect of their lives that pleases them.
Screening at the close of Saturday night at South By Southwest, “Attack The Block” is the ideal midnight movie, in that it moves at a breathless pace, the action continuous and busy, and yet Cornish manages to clearly distinguish between each of the kids, not to mention the space onscreen during the many action scenes. The violence is frenetic and visceral, but Cornish shoots these sequences with clarity and intensity, suggesting he’s an action director ready to bloom.
And if you live by the adage that 90% of directing is casting, then Cornish’s job was fairly easy, as a group of total unknowns completely carry this picture. Credit must be given to the young John Boyega, a possible future star, who plays Moses, the de-facto leader of the pack. Boyega has a face that reveals both anger and strength in regular doses, the type of attitude that just cannot be taught in acting classes. As such, our designated hero, Boyega, with an expressive upper brow that reflects the character’s intelligence beyond these circumstances, is believable as both a defiant tough guy and as a teen who theorizes that the aliens are a government program meant to eliminate lower-class citizens. He’s compellingly watchable.
“Attack The Block” throbs and grooves to a constant hip hop beat, some of it provided by eclectic pop music choices, and some provided by an excellent score from techno artists Basement Jaxx. Superior to recent scores like the Chemical Brothers’ work on “Hanna” and Justice’s contributions to “Rubber,” the Jaxx don’t shed their pop sensibility in giving the underlying action it’s own frantic, danceable groove. Dynamic and mercurial, the deceptively simple themes work in propelling the action while remaining unobtrusive, to the point where it feels less like the soundtrack to the movie and more like the soundtrack to these characters’ lives. Though the Jaxx haven’t scored before, their work, and the movie as a whole, seems to be the work of several newcomers, but it feels like the results of old pros. [A]