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Entries in Attack the Block [2011] (1)

Monday
Oct312011

Attack the Block (2011)

Let My Wankstas Go!

A gang of hooded, knife-wielding youths corners a young woman on her way home from work one evening. They demand her wallet and cell phone, which, shaking and pleading, she hands over. Finally, the leader, Moses (John Boyega), points to a ring on her finger; she struggles to take it off and the impatient thug wrestles with her. The other gang members look on, cracking jokes and urging Moses to hurry up before the cops arrive.

Meet the heroes of Attack the Block, a frustrating and misguided sci-fi adventure that might have been special had it contained more than one character worth rooting for. Yes, I said "sci-fi adventure": these teen criminals happen to be Earth's first line of defense in an alien invasion that begins in their neighborhood. Part Goonies, part Boyz n the Hood, with an off-brand dash of Shaun of the Dead's wry, slacker wit (naturally, since Edgar Wright is a producer on this film), Attack the Block is the perfect anti-authority romp for dumb, cell-phone addicted teenagers; audience members who've long since grown up, however, may find much of the film cringe-worthy, especially since it's presented as hip, harmless entertainment.

In the middle of the mugging that opens the film, a meteor crashes into a nearby car. The victim, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), escapes, while the boys investigate the wreckage. They discover an eyeless, diminutive, gray troll with a large mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. Moses kills it and the gang parades it through the streets of South London on their way to figuring out who they can sell it to. They visit the penthouse suite of the drug kingpin that lives in their building (the "block" of the title), and he agrees to let them keep the corpse locked in his well-sealed pot room.

The gang's troubles are far from over, however, as at least a dozen more "meteors" crash in the surrounding area, producing a similar yet far nastier breed of creature. The hulking, black monsters appear as hairy silhouettes distinguishable only by glowing green teeth, and they rip apart everything from police officers to apartments in their quest to find Moses. The reason he's so special is something I'll leave for you to discover; it's the film's only surprise and one of maybe three bright spots.

Yes, it's with a heavy heart that I recommend watching Attack the Block. There is a solid twenty minutes of action and cool cinematography towards the end (the battle in the smoke-filled hallway is one of the coolest things I've seen all year), and I really do love the story of why the creatures came to Earth. But everything else--depending on your age, sensibilities, and tolerance for juvenile bullshit--is a test of will not usually reserved for movie watching.

There's too much glorification of these kids for my liking. It's not until about forty-five minutes in--more than half the run-time--that someone finally calls them on the fact that they're not good people. I appreciate a good antihero as much as the next guy, but there's a finite amount of acceptable "anti" one can exhibit before being tossed in either the "villain" or "forgettable loser" categories. Moses' journey from selfish brute to planet-saving Christ figure is a hard sell, especially because it's unclear what his creator had in mind for him and his gang.

Writer/director Joe Cornish seems to want to have his rebellion both ways. The kids are thugs who draw knives when they don't get their way, but later claim that they would have never actually used them. They acknowledge having police records, but then act genuinely surprised when the cops show up to a building that's on fire and immediately finger them as the culprits. Worse yet, they talk like hip-hop-loving tough guys and run errands for a genuine, heat-packing psychopath, but they all live in the same middle-class apartment building and--from what little we see of their home lives (with the exception of Moses)--don't come from abusive or impoverished families.

Maybe if it were more apparent that these were actually lower-class punks, Attack the Block could have lived up to its "Inner City vs. Outer Space" tagline. As it stands, this crew is a pack of posers--bored, spoiled mini-Ali G's who'd rather smoke weed with thirty-somethings and complain about the systemic racism that's keeping them down than actually get an education or--God forbid--a job. Cornish's approach to the material feels like that of a smidge-too-old white guy whose knowledge of class struggles comes from talking-head coverage of last summer's London riots.

The ending is a major head-scratcher, as Moses finds himself locked in the back of a police truck with one of his few remaining sideckicks, Pest (Alex Esmail), and hordes of neighbors screaming for his release. I found this to be not only completely unrealistic, but also disingenuous. For starters, let's assume Moses has earned his reputation for being a gang leader and a criminal. If the building he lives in blows up and the cops are seen hauling his crew out in cuffs, how likely is it that a few declarations of his having saved the world from alien invasion will get everyone on his side? For Christ's sake, this guy's more Nino Brown than Joe Clark, but is being hailed as Will Smith.

Second, why is everyone out in the street in the first place? Can we assume that more than just the main characters saw the black, gorilla-sized monsters with the green teeth racing up the side of the building? Can we also assume that, like human beings you might meet on the street, they would be more likely to call the authorities and lock their doors in such a situation rather than, say, re-enact the climax of Ghostbusters? The end of Attack the Block is some kind of out-of-left-field social commentary that's about as coherent as a stoned college kid in a Che shirt rambling on about Area 51.

I really wanted to like this film, and I think that Cornish shows great promise as a director. But his problem is that he never defines his characters--a crucial element in successful sci-fi and horror comedies. Likable characters--if not in action than at least in wit, charm, or intelligence--are not the tired hallmarks of a faded morality; they're the reason the audience is able to invest in a film, to go along for fantastic journeys--and it takes one hell of a writer to make the kind of unconvincing, late-picture change-of-heart that Moses has work. Wait too long to give the audience a reason to cheer on your lead and you may just find them siding with the murderous, drooling aliens.