Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
2011’s Attack the Block under-performed tragically at the box office but became a bit of a cult classic thanks to favorable critical reviews. For a film starring current genre megastars John Boyega (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi) and Jodie Whittaker (Doctor Who) it’s worth revisiting. In the wake of highly marketable socially conscious genre filmmaking like Get Out (2016) and Black Panther (2018) the much earlier Attack the Block begins to feel a little bit prescient. This film, however, hardly had such lofty goals, but remains a hell of a lot of fun.
Freshly graduated nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is on her way home when she is accosted and mugged at knife point by a gang of masked youths led by Moses (John Boyega). While the robbery is successful, Sam manages to escape unscathed when the affair is interrupted by a nearby car exploding, seemingly impacted by a small meteorite. As the group of boys inspects the vehicle, Moses is attacked and viciously wounded by a small, gangly, creature which runs off to a nearby playground. Vowing revenge, and eager to repair his bruised ego and impress his friends, Moses and the gang hunt the creature down and parade its corpse as they march through their home at the fictional Wyndham Estates. Like American “Projects” the Council Estates in South London have gained legendary status in pop culture as cheap homes for the downtrodden and criminal. The boys in the film somewhat affectionately call their home “the block”.
While celebrating their victory, eager to parlay their fresh kill into respect and riches, the gang notices objects streaming from the sky and impacting all about the nearby area. Eager to collect more alien corpses, they arm themselves (with baseball bats and fireworks) and head out to what they assume will be another easy victory. Unfortunately for them, while the first creature was a barely two-feet tall defenseless weakling these new arrivals are enormous toothy-mawed monsters. Much deserves to be written about the look of these aliens. They are sightless bear-like animals with a hunched over posture and powerful clawed arms. Post-production added some crucial effects to the costumes and puppets by adding a vantablack effect to the dark fur and a blue glow to the monster’s ravenous toothy jaws. It is truly creepy as the softly screeching creature slide through the lamp-lit shadows of London’s streets and complexes. The boys quickly realism they are outmatched and run for their lives.
While all this has been happening Sam has been in contact with the Police. Now terrified of the place she called home, Sam has turned to the police for help in recovering her cellphone and ring and (somewhat unusually) the police have eagerly helped her, going so far as to patrol around the area with her in search of her muggers. It is while they are fleeing from the monster in the park that Moses is chased and apprehended by the police. While he is in custody, his friends contemplate his escape when the two officers on the scene are brutally mauled and murdered by one of the alien creatures. A combination of fireworks and chutzpah allows one of them to steal to police van and drive Moses and Sam away to safety.
Much of the dialogue in the film is in vernacular English, heavily influenced by Jamaican patois, and the cast of characters largely children putting up a bombastic gangster front with nothing to back it up except for fear of being swallowed up by the system. This is yet another film where the heroes refuse to call and inform the police even when bodies start dropping due to a supernatural threat. Unlike the typical flimsy excuse of “nobody would believe us” (which is territory the film covers plenty) these boys won’t call the “feds” because they’re more afraid of institutional racism than they are of bloodthirsty alien monsters.
But aliens and cops aren’t the only threats to the lives of these teens. A series of run-ins with local gangster Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) ignites his psychopathic rage against the boys. It’s a rather stunning display of toxic masculinity. Much of the film is devoted to bravado and machismo, the white hot rage of teenage embarrassment, and the reinforced cycle of neglect of abuse. Local girls rightly ridicule the boys for their posturing and behavior, but the nature of the film being what it is, their refusal to accept the situation as truly life-threatening until it is too late is more infuriating than the necessary comeuppance to would-be gangster thugs it should be.
Moses eventually surmises the aliens have been after him this entire time and decides to use himself as bait to lure them to their deaths. It’s a bit quick but there is a sense of growth towards maturity and responsibility in the character here. Moses is an angry character and a swirling mess of emotions who succeeds only in getting himself into trouble. Faced with the deaths of two of his friends and the realization that many of his problems are of his own making he willingly risks his life to try and make things right. He even attempts an apology to Sam for the mugging, returning her ring, though it ultimately amounts to “I didn’t know we were neighbors”.
While fleeing from the aliens who have invaded the Wyndham tower, the boys spot Sam and rush into her apartment and apparent safety. The boys demand she treats one of their wounded and are unapologetic and caustic towards her. When she bitterly jokes that she’s thinking of moving to a better neighborhood one of them aggressively asks her what exactly is wrong with her current one without a hint of awareness or irony. But when faced with a hallway full of extraterrestrial man-eaters or angry young teenagers, she chooses the latter.
With all this lip-service paid to sociopolitical issues, including one of the lads dismissing Sam’s Red Cross volunteer boyfriend for not choosing to help local kids instead, a viewer might expect the film to have something to say at the end about all of this. Certainly the imagery of John Boyega hanging for dear life from a United Kingdom flag beneath his freshly incinerated apartment looks like imagery that’s trying to say something. What that is, however, remains stubbornly unclear. In the aftermath the surviving boys are arrested while a crowd of supporters, held back by the police, chant Moses’ name. Sam approaches the police, identifying herself as the earlier victim and speaks briefly in the boys’ defense. “I know them, they’re my neighbors, and they protected me”. The lives of these kids are still disadvantaged, even after becoming heroes. But crises have a away of bringing people together and, at least for tonight, they’ve made one more friend.