Don’t speak too soon, merely whisper it: British cinema might just be getting a little exciting. Following the release of Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, the feature film which took well-worn genre stylistics and confidently embedded them in a British context, we have Attack The Block, which performs a similar conceptual turnaround.
Written and directed by Joe Cornish – half of the Adam & Joe double act – Attack The Block sees an alien invasion heading straight for London. However, if they were aiming for the seats of power, they must have shot a little short, as the extraterrestrials land in South London, specifically on a council estate, where they are met not by suspicious military types, or idealistic scientists, but the local wildlife: a gang of hooded youths.
Before dabbling in digital radio, Adam & Joe created short, sharp spoofs of contemporary blockbusters for their eponymous television show, so it is no surprise that Cornish’s debut is supremely assured, and well-versed in genre tropes. Attack The Block is stuffed with textbook sci-fi horror sequences as the boys discover, fight and are hunted by the aliens.
Like Edgar Wright, Cornish has a real visual flair, mimicking the best scenes of horror and action blockbusters on a fraction of the budget. However, it is the cleverness of the film’s conception that gives it an edge. The council estate context has an unforgiving, concrete quality that is immediately distinctive, and Cornish works many other well-observed aspects – such as time lag light switches, and even the flags that dangle from high-rise balconies – into the film’s set-pieces, highlighting the familiar within the fantasy.
What is surprising, though, is the cast of newcomer actors, tasked with bringing humour and heroism to the hoodies. They are terrific, keeping the film fun way after the script’s heavy pop-culture references start to lose their lustre. However, while the shift from caricature to rounded character is very well handled, the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast, such as the middle class clown Brewis (Luke Treadaway) or the somewhat cold nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker), who sometimes feel like comic or narrative window-dressing.
Indeed, Cornish sets himself a rather complicated task, as Attack The Block’s punchy sub-90 minute structure has little time to develop a real sense of social complexity, or even a satisfying character arc for Moses (John Boyega), the gang’s leader.
Perhaps it’s the light-hearted engagement with such a social hot potato that is the problem: the film opens with Moses and his crew mugging Sam on her commute home, and this crime is only absolved by the adventure itself, through which both the gang and Sam learn a little about each other’s lives, and form a bond forged by a shared struggle. Such a development comes off as cheap, and even a little simple, considering how smart the rest of the film is.
Although, for a pacy and wildly enjoyable flick, this isn’t a harmful flaw. In fact, it is far more important that Attack The Block dares to see the urban working class not as a launchpad for ‘issues’ or social realistic drama, but as potential characters for a highly entertaining genre film. In the process, it side-steps many of the pitfalls of British cinema: there are no red telephone boxes, awkward romantics or stiff upper lips here, just a giddy sense of invention, a freshness of perspective, and a deep understanding of cinematic style.
Alongside Ayoade, Cornish is now a director to watch.