Attack The Block: an underappreciated gem

It introduced John Boyega, features Jodie Whitaker, and it's a great invasion movie. We take a second look at Attack The Block...

In 2011, the writer and director Joe Cornish released his debut feature film, Attack The Block, in which aliens begin their invasion of Earth on a South London housing estate. With a cast of rising stars and a director as confident as they come, the movie quickly gained a cult following and has proven itself a wellspring of talent.

But for whatever reason, the movie itself failed to catch fire commercially. It made back only half its budget at the box office despite near-universal critical acclaim. Den of Geek’s own Michael Leader gave it 4 stars, praising its visual flair and sense of invention. The film stands as proof, if it’s needed, that being good isn’t always enough.

Today, as the cast have gone on to greater things, it’s hard to imagine the film being so overlooked had it been released now. Samantha, the film’s female lead (and audience entry-point character) was played by Jodie Whittaker, who impressed in Broadchurch and will be dusting off her invasion-foiling skills as the incoming 13th Doctor in Doctor Who. Moses, the male lead, was played by John Boyega, who was catapulted to stardom after being cast as an alien in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Even members of the supporting cast have done alright for themselves: Franz Drameh, who played gang member Dennis, appeared in Edge Of Tomorrow and is now Firestorm in the ‘Flawrrowverse’ of DC television shows. The guy in the ‘Head Alien’ suit – Terry Notary – had a well-established career as a movement coach and stunt co-ordinator before Attack The Block, but expanded his on-screen performances since, most notably in the Planet Of The Apes franchise, as the eponymous ape in Kong: Skull Island and (excitingly) as Corvus Glaive in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War.

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That’s not to say that Cornish was necessarily a man with his finger on the talent pulse, however. His biggest act of genius was to write a script that gave relative unknowns the chance to impress. It’s no surprise that he struck talent gold in Boyega especially, because he had to fill roles that even today, are virtually non-existent. How quickly can you name another action movie where the cast is mostly non-white? While far from impossible, it’s still not easy.

The reality is that anyone could’ve spotted the likes of Boyega – Cornish and his team just had the good sense to actually look, because they wanted to tell a story with some degree of verisimilitude with the real world. Cornish famously came up with the opening of Attack The Block (in which Moses mugs Samantha) after being mugged near his house in South London, and his reaction – turning the young criminals into the heroes of the piece – ranks as a remarkable act of artistic compassion and understanding for their situation.

Along with the great cast, interesting textual twist on the Amblin-style kids-team-up genre and the smart use of class politics, another thing that makes Attack The Block great is how authentically London it feels. A large number of films set in London take place in either a rarefied high society, or a heavily stylised world of crooks and gangsters. Attack The Block feels like the work of someone committed to portraying London with nuance and honesty. It might be that this made the film hard to sell, because its geography becomes cinematically unfamiliar, but no more so than the likes of The Warriors, with which it shares much of its DNA.

In short, there’s little about Attack The Block that fails to land, and while it might not quite be the ground zero for British action films it could have been, it’s worth the 90 minutes of your time it’ll take to watch.

But what next for Cornish? Since releasing Attack The Block, he’s worked on the script for Marvel’s Ant-Man and was reportedly considered to direct both Star Trek Beyond and Kong: Skull Island, but so far, it seems that he’s being careful about what movie he helms next. The fact that his name pops up on these lists – and occasionally as a script doctor (he’s credited with “helping with the screenplay” on Paddington) – means there’s probably a lot of work going on that we don’t see.

If Cornish is waiting to see if he can get one of his own projects off the ground first, there are a few that it could be. In 2012, he signed to direct his own adaptation of Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash at Paramount, but as of this year no start date has been set. Similarly, a “real-life James Bond movie” about the founding of MI6 called Section 6 was first talked about in 2014, but also appears to have stalled.

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Perhaps the most interesting news, however, came in May this year when casting director Jessica Ronane announced a search for the leads of The Kid Who Would Be King, a fantasy-adventure that, like Attack The Block, appears to be a Cornish original. According to Ronane, all we know is that it’s “about a band of young kids embarking on an epic quest to thwart a Medieval menace”. Scheduled to shoot this year, we’ve no idea whether it’s actually started, but if it is his next film and does indeed star a young cast, we can bet all eyes will be on the young stars he selects.

Let’s just hope his next movie isn’t ANOTHER six years away.