The term ‘cult movie’ is coined a lot these days, without a lot of justification. For me, a cult movie is a movie which gains such a title over time, perhaps one that wasn’t initially accepted on its release (see Fight Club and A Clockwork Orange) and goes on to find its true audience on home viewing. But in the case of Attack the Block, a lot of critics have citied this as a movie that is destined to become a cult film. Now this statement confused me. Does it mean to say you should write it off on its release and give it time to find its true calling as a movie? Or does it mean that it just has the makings of a cult movie and you should check it out now? I feel prone to go with the latter. Joe Cornish, of Adam and Joe, writes and directs this very British sci-fi horror comedy, which certainly does have the makings of a cult movie, harkening back to the sci-fi nasties of the 80’s to give us a movie that Joe ‘Gremlins’ Dante would have been proud of.
On the night of Guy Fawkes, November the 5th, a teenage gang from South London (lets face it, Chavs) led by the enigmatic and tough Moses (John Boyega), attempts to rob a young nurse, Sam (Jodie Whittaker) as she’s walking home. During which, the gang’s attempts are interrupted by a strange object crashing down right next to them. When the thing from another world acts in a hostile manner towards them, Moses and co. react by kicking the shit out of it. But that was merely the beginning, as soon enough more extra-terrestrial beings with menacing glow-in-the-dark teeth crash-land on the South London estate, seemingly with a vendetta against Moses and his friends. Paired up with the nurse they earlier tried to rob, the gang tool up to take on the evil otherworldly menace and defend their block with their lives.
The best way to describe this movie is to say it’s a mix of Predator and Kidulthood via the darkly funny backbone of Shaun of the Dead. The movie moves along at quite a breakneck pace, fuelled by a electronic pumping score. The action itself may be slightly restricted by the budget of the movie, but in all respect, it does bloody well within its restrictions. The 80’s vibe very much comes from seeing a group of colourful characters, each with a unique, well-drawn personality taking on some nasty beasties with a wide-ranging array of weapons, from a samurai sword to a baseball bat, to a bunch of fireworks. Memorable set pieces include an impressive and atmospheric slow walk down a smokey corridor within the gangs block and a slow-mo run near the movies climax. But the most surprising element to this movie is the depth it actually goes to with developing and fleshing out its characters.
It would’ve been very easy to have gone far too jokey and silly with the Chavs V.S. Aliens gimmick, so much so that I think it would have made it hard for us as the audience to sympathise with the characters if they just stayed as the stereotypes that we are subjected to on the news. And sure, most of the humour comes from the colloquial dialogue shared amongst the gang, but whereas the media is prone to portray this element of society as being full of loud-mouthed, unpleasant and irrational individuals, this movie goes someway to improving the image of your South London hoodie. A lot more than any empty ‘Hug a Hoodie’ policy suggested by a certain Mr. Cameron. This film shows us the background of these characters, some more so than others, as we see Moses life, which is deprived and rather lonely. It is in the setup of Moses’ lifestyle that we see why he is so hard-edged and intimidating in his character. We see this reveal through the character of Sam, the young nurse who, at first, believes in the media image of chavs being ruthless thugs, but slowly starts to see past the stereotype that she has been spoonfed via television and newspapers. It’s a shame the riots happened, because that has only fuelled this stereotype on more. All we really need is a little alien invasion to see that chavs aren’t really all that bad.
That’s not to say this movie is a serious and relevant sci-fi drama piece which focuses on the structure of lives of council estate individuals amongst the outbreak of an alien invasion. It’s a lot more fun then that. This is an incredibly strong debut from Cornish, who deftly handles the action beats; from a gory attack on a police van to a mad dash through the streets of South London to make it back to the block, alongside the laughs that come mostly from the individual characters. He also manages to create a brilliant atmosphere, the cinematography is both satisfyingly grimy and wondrously neon in its textures of colours (mostly greens and blues), making it a strong visual experience. As stated before, Cornish is working on a restricted budget, therefore there may not be quite enough alien action to fully satisfy the biggest sci-fi action fans, but he does what he can. The design of the aliens is rather interesting and works well with both the budget restraints and the atmosphere of the movie, as Cornish reveals his creatures in pure Jaws fashion. He also manages to wean a few surprises into the narrative, with some truly shocking moments (half the deaths I really didn’t see coming).
Cornish certainly knows his genre well, with some nice references to great sci-fi movies before it (particularly Predator in its opening shot). He also knows, well and truly, that he has made this movie with all the ingredients of a cult hit. Colourful characters? Check. Inventive creature design? Check. Unique take on a well-worn genre? Check. An impressive unknown cast that’ll hopefully go on to bigger and brighter things? Check. It is a shame that the rather modest budget (hey, it’s British) couldn’t be a bit grander to allow for Cornish to broaden his scope. You can almost feel in every frame that Joe is dying to burst out with more ideas and more action, but hasn’t quite got the means to do so. Thankfully though, he does put this passion into his script, and it’s certainly shared amongst his cast. And you’re unlikely to find a better British sci-fi horror comedy featuring chavs taking on Gorilla-type aliens in a South London estate this year. Because, you know, those films are a dime a dozen these days.