How Attack The Block redefines the high-concept movie

In the wake of Joe Cornish's excellent Attack The Block, Paul wonders if the film will usher in a new wave of imaginative, high-concept blockbusters...

There may be a few people who come out of Attack The Block disappointed. A common complaint that I’ve heard from a few fellow critics is that it isn’t Shaun Of The Dead. There’s little of the satirical edge or trope-savvy meta-humour of that film or Hot Fuzz.

Although there are laughs in places, it’s true that Attack The Block isn’t as funny as Shaun – but then again I’m not sure it’s trying to be. While you could confidently label Shaun and Hot Fuzz as genre parodies, Attack The Block seems at first to be little more than a straightforward action film.

However, while the individual allusions to other films are subtler, Attack The Block as a film homage is a lot broader in scope than Edgar Wright’s movies are. Whereas Shaun Of The Dead was a love letter to Romero zombie horror, and Hot Fuzz a celebration of testosterone-fuelled buddy-cop movies, Attack The Block is nostalgic for a whole era of film-making. Specifically, the era of the high concept.

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The term ‘high concept’ is a slippery one, but in its most basic sense, ‘high concept’ can be defined as a story idea that derives its appeal from its central conceit. In other words, an idea that can be pitched to a producer in no more than a dozen words or so, in a way that said producer will instantly be able to tell whether the idea has commercial appeal or not.

Here are some examples: A child can see dead people. If it goes under 50mph, a bus will explode. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito are twins. In its purest form, a high concept idea can be summarised (and crucially, sold) entirely by its own title, as is the case with Home Alone, An American Werewolf In London or, famously, Snakes On A Plane.  

Another way to define high concept was provided by the (literal) King of high concept horror, Stephen King in his book, On Writing. All of his story ideas begin as a “what if?” scenario, as in “What if a policeman was re-animated as half-robot? What if a New York cop had to fight terrorists in a LA skyscraper? What if we could clone dinosaurs?” And, in the case of Attack The Block: “What if aliens invaded South London?”

It’s important to distinguish the difference between blockbusters and high-concept films. A film like Star Wars, for example, isn’t high concept because its synopsis (farm hand befriends effeminate robots and old man in order to save princess with unusual haircut) doesn’t come close to describing its appeal. The film’s success is execution-driven, rather than pitch driven. That’s not to say that Attack The Block isn’t executed superbly, but ultimately its success is down to it fulfilling the promise of its stellar central premise.

While films that could be described as high concept have existed for as long as the movies themselves, the term really began to become ubiquitous and important in the second half of the 70s, before gathering steam into the 80s. The enormous and unexpected success of Jaws (classic high concept: what if a shark started eating people?) in 1976 left movie executives reeling, and faced potentially with a whole new world order.

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Firstly, the studios finally began waking up to the fact that teenagers were their biggest and most lucrative demographic. As a result of this discovery, film plots that would have previously been dismissed as fodder for pulpy, low-budget trash were now being viewed as potentially huge money-spinners, movies that would reward a significant investment into both their production and marketing.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the then-unusual release strategy for Jaws set a significant precedent. Previously, only films that were expected to bomb were released on a large number of screens, in an attempt to ‘smash and grab’ a potential audience before bad reviews and toxic word of mouth took their toll.

Films that were expected to do well were released on a small number of screens at first, then had their release slowly expanded, in an attempt to use good word-of-mouth and positive reviews to gather financial momentum. Jaws bucked this trend by accompanying a nationwide release on a large number of screens with a national TV marketing campaign, with Universal executive Sidney Sheinberg surmising that marketing costs would be recouped quicker using this method.

The results spoke for themselves. Jaws became the highest grossing film ever (until the release of Star Wars two years later), providing Hollywood with its first significantly profitable hit in years, kicking off in grand style the era of the summer blockbuster. The staggered release method that relied on good reviews was killed almost overnight for big films, and how well a film ‘opens’ (i.e. the amount of money it takes in its opening weekend) became the key barometer in determining a film’s success to the studio execs.

This emphasis on a film being able to ‘open’ meant that more than ever, films were required to have a central hook that would prove intriguing enough to entice audiences into the cinema on the opening weekend. This was key in the rise of high concept – films that could be succinctly described in a few words and were concept, rather than execution-driven, were easier to market and, as such, a much safer bet to open well.

Peter Biskind described Jaws in his book, Down And Dirty Pictures, as “the Trojan horse through which the studios began to reassert their power”, and certainly after the release of Jaws, studios began to have more of a creative input than in previous years.

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No one personified this blurring of the creative and the commercial more starkly than Don Simpson, a larger-than-life producer who forged an immensely successful partnership with Jerry Bruckheimer throughout the 80s and early 90s. Simpson became renowned for coming up with unique, pithy concepts for movies and then developing them into huge box office hits. It was something he, along with Bruckheimer, managed to do time and time again with smashes such as Flashdance, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, and The Rock.

Like fellow super-producer Robert Evans, Simpson originally worked as a studio executive before making the transition to producing. It was actually a change forced on Simpson by his superiors, due to his alleged heroic drug and alcohol intake, which led to him passing out on a number of occasions during board meetings.

But unlike Evans, who prided himself on producing a number of the most critically-acclaimed films of the seventies (including The Godfather, Rosemary’s Baby, and Chinatown), Simpson openly dismissed the importance of creating something with artistic merit, and made no secret of his priority as a producer: to make as much money as possible.

One of the most widely-attributed quotes to Simpson sums up his mercenary attitude: “We [as film-makers] have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. Our obligation is to make money.”

This brutally Reaganomic approach to movie-making has become synonymous with high concept filmmaking. High concept blockbusters have always been regarded with contempt and suspicion by cineastes, and where the American New Wave cinema of the 70s continues to be canonised by critics and revered and imitated by a generation of film-makers, the whole idea of ‘high concept’ has now been dismissed along with shoulder pads, Stock Aitken and Waterman, Gotcha! and widespread financial deregulation of the banks, as an unfortunate consequence of misguided 80s excess.

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The state of genre cinema in 2011, however, is so bad that when a brazenly high-concept film like Attack The Block comes along, it feels exciting and invigorating in a way that is unmatched by most other so-called, ‘serious’ films.

And arguably, ‘serious’ movies are in rude health, with a crop of Best Picture nominees this year as acclaimed as any in recent memory. Whereas action, sci-fi and horror movies, the three genres most amenable to the high concept premise, have spent (with a few notable exceptions) the last decade locked in a state of creative bankruptcy that even Don Simpson may have balked at: an onslaught of remakes, reboots, adaptations, spin-offs, sequels, threequels, prequels, re-interpretations and re-imaginings. It sometimes appears that every new blockbuster movie existed previously as either a cartoon (Transformers), a theme park ride (Pirates Of The Caribbean), or a superhero comic (everything else).

If Attack The Block proves to be the success it deserves to be, the idea that it might lead to a renaissance in high concept movies shouldn’t be met with apprehension by filmgoers. On the contrary, it’s something to get excited about. High-concept doesn’t have to mean the flashy, substance-less and commodity-obsessed output of Simpson and Bruckheimer. What Joe Cornish and a small band of film-makers appreciate is that the supposed constraints of the high concept actually led to a number of directors doing some of their best, most creative, enduring, and innovative work.

Whilst directors who first came to the fore in the seventies – Coppola, Scorsese, Altman and Bogdonavich – have been rightly praised as auteurs, the genre directors of the eighties arguably have much more in common with the early Hollywood directors that were the basis for Truffaut’s original ‘auteur theory’ than they do with the American New Wave. Like Huston, Hawks and Hitchcock, there were numerous directors in the 80s who were able to impose their own distinctive styles of filmmaking onto movies, in spite of an imposingly strict commercial bottom line.

You don’t have to look very hard for examples. There’s the geeky comedy of John Landis and Joe Dante. The laconic machismo of Walter Hill and John McTiernan. The kinetic splatter of Sam Raimi. The feminist techno-drama of James Cameron. The claustrophobic suspense of John Carpenter. The gooey social commentary of George Romero. The surreal nightmares of David Cronenberg. And of course, the pure sentimental wonder of Steven Spielberg.

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Cornish, Wright and a select group of other, largely British filmmakers clearly admire these directors just as much as they do any of the ones taught in film school. To them, Robert Zemeckis is as integral to their film education as Robert Altman, and The Last Boy Scout is just as much of a textbook as The Last Picture Show. They don’t gloss over the high-concept era as a cynical yuppie indulgence, but celebrate it as a febrile time period in terms of imagination, and, more crucially, as a time when great, enduring films were made.

RoboCop, Ghostbusters, The Terminator, Back To The Future – these are ideas, stories and characters that remain almost as popular now, 20 years later, as they were at their inception. All filmmakers and artists want to make work that resonates in some way with people, and in that sense, the eighties produced some of the most resonant films ever made.

It is ironic that the saviours of the high concept film might come from the UK, seeing as genre cinema has been largely dormant in this country for decades. There are various reasons for this. The commercial marginalisation of British movies on the global stage, the increased emphasis on prohibitively expensive special effects, and the argument that the archetype that has sustained a lot of American action cinema (the Western) simply doesn’t translate well to British stories.

(Attack The Block thoroughly disproves that last one, by the way – it has basically the same plot as John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13, which in turn was a loose adaptation of the 1959 John Wayne western, Rio Bravo.)

But now that Hollywood seems unwilling to produce any genre movies that don’t already come with a fanbase already built-in, a new generation of Brits have taken it upon themselves to take up the slack, Over the past few years, we’ve seen Edgar Wright’s aforementioned high-concept action parodies, the thoughtful sci-fi of Duncan Jones’ Moon and Source Code, the low-budget wizardry of Gareth Edwards in Monsters, and the clever genre mash-ups of Christopher Smith in Triangle and Black Death.

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Special mention should go to Neil Marshall (The Descent, Centurion), who until recently, has been ploughing largely a lone furrow in making exciting and interesting British genre films, and Christopher Nolan, who sometimes seems to be single-handedly waging a one-man crusade to stop the $100 million-plus blockbuster from descending completely into derivative mediocrity.

With a limited number of high-concept films left to cannibalise (although we still have RoboCop, They Live, Romancing The Stone, Westworld, Red Dawn, Highlander, Child’s Play, and The Warriors remakes to look forward to), genre cinema will soon have to stop the endless remakes and sequels, and return to the essence of what made those films great: the sense of wonder and excitement at having hit upon an idea nobody had ever thought of before, the sheer satisfaction of coming up with a golden premise that makes everyone sit up and pay attention, and the craftsmanship involved in realising that vision for an audience. If and when that happens, there’s a chance that with this current crop of film-making talent, we could enter a new golden age of high concept creativity.

Which brings us back to Attack The Block. It is, at heart, a straightforward action movie. But that’s what makes it so thrilling. It’s a British action movie. And it’s actually good. Great, even.

In places it’s as good as many of the films that Cornish has noted inspired it, such as Critters, Gremlins, and The Warriors.  It’s scary, funny, exciting, with great performances and memorable characters. The largely practical special effects are brilliant and inventive. The score is fantastic. It looks as good as any action film from the past decade.

Admittedly, it features little of the post-modern playfulness of Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. Although there’s some unobtrusive and well-handled social commentary, it doesn’t tell you a whole deal about the human condition. It’s also not intellectually demanding, or even particularly ground-breaking in its storytelling.

But in this, the age of the reboot and the franchise, its earnest and anachronistic belief in the power of that one great idea – the ‘high concept’ – makes Attack the Block quietly revolutionary in its own way. All it asks is, “What if aliens invaded South London?”, and if only for having the audacity to ask that question with a straight face, it might prove to be the one of the most important British films in years.

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Attack The Block is in cinemas now.

See also:Joe Cornish interviewAttack The Block review

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