Opening in theaters July 29
Directed by Joe Cornish
Although the film certainly has its share of fans, the one thing that Super 8 proved unequivocally is that it’s almost impossible to recapture the energy and the feeling of the Amblin movies of the 1980s. Audiences, especially kids, have seen too many movies derived from the conventions first created in their classic predecessors, and demand a different kind of stimulus in order to feel mystified, transported, or even just entertained. If anything, Abrams’ film succeeded because he tapped more into a sense of nostalgia for viewers old enough to remember the movies of the ’80s, or the ’80s themselves, than into some contemporary feeling that offers a similar sense of inspiration. All of which is why Attack the Block, a new film in a similar vein, is all the more astonishing.
Written and directed by Joe Cornish, Attack the Block doesnâ€™t prey on nostalgia, although it certainly conjures it. Rather, it takes the sense of empowerment kids felt while watching movies like E.T. and The Goonies and updates it, creating an exciting, intense adventure that lives up to the legacy of its predecessors by continuing it rather than simply celebrating accomplishments that were already made.
Newcomer John Boyega plays Moses, the leader of a scrappy gang of street toughs who chase down a weird-looking little creature and kill it after it quite literally falls out of the sky and attacks them. Dragging their trophy back to the housing project where they live, they drop it off at the apartment of a local drug dealer named Ron (Nick Frost), who’s doing business with his boss Hi-Hatz, as well as a local stoner named Brewis (Luke Treadaway). When Moses and co. see what they think is another creature plummet to the ground, they run out to teach it a lesson. But they soon discover that what has followed their first conquest is much bigger, meaner, and more dangerous, and soon find themselves defending their apartment building, and their lives, against what appears to be no less than an alien invasion.
As a protÃ©gÃ© and sometime colleague of Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim director Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish shares in common a sensibility that feels youthful, while also having an execution that’s sophisticated and mature; both filmmakers relish the inspiration they draw from other genre films, but have the presence of mind to use it as a building block rather than a raison d’etre. Here, Cornish creates a reality that acknowledges recognizable dynamics of race and class, but then throws them into a blender with his sci-fi fantasies, and the end result never feels either too didactic or farfetched. That his cast is primarily comprised of black characters is at once a unique creative choice and shrewd cultural commentary; not only does it allow him to present a different viewpoint from which to view this extraterrestrial attack, but it confronts viewers with the possibility that they may soon find themselves identifying with someone who â€“ gasp! â€“ actually doesn’t look exactly like they do.
Meanwhile, in an era of wall-to-wall computer-generated imagery, it’s refreshing to see special effects executed practically, especially if they are used in a way that isn’t just old-school for its own sake but genuinely amplifies the dramatic intensity of the story. Other than some CGI meteorites, Cornish uses almost all practical effects to create his alien invasion, and it creates â€“ just at a most basic level â€“ a palpable sense of danger that gives Moses and the other character’s efforts real physical and emotional weight. When a creature bursts through a window and bites one of the characters’ legs, we’re shocked as much because of the tangibility of the encounter as the literal surprise that it happened; and later, when a character dives through an apartment full of the creatures to make a quick exit, there’s a thrilling kind of anticipation to see how or when he’ll actually collide with one of them.
That said, what works so brilliantly about the design of the creatures is that they’re virtually featureless, except for their black mass of fur and day-glo blue teeth, which makes them feel, not just real, but foreign, and yes, alien, and intensifies the suspense of their nimble, encroaching attacks on these characters’ otherwise mundane bedrooms, kitchens and hallways. Their loping gait is made all the more fearsome because it’s so hard to see, but what’s notable about cinematically speaking it is the fact that it never feels like it’s been choreographed to cover up deficiencies in the production; I suspect that even as a costume at rest, I’d be uneasy around those things, because they feel fully constructed from head to toe â€“ and imminently dangerous.
But the real thing that makes its special effects and alien-invasion conceit work is the construction of the ensemble and the writing that shuttles that ensemble through the action. Cornish introduces the group of street toughs as they mug a woman of her cell phone and jewelry, but rather than cutting to some subplot about a sick grandmother or some other calculated justification for their criminality, he simply provides a cultural, and more importantly economic context: these kids are all growing up in a place where they not only have nothing, they basically are nothing.
Consequently, however, we’re not automatically sympathetic to their low-income lifestyles or the superficial appeal of hip-hop gangsterhood, but we do begin to see them for who they are, a bunch of kids growing up faster than they’re ready to, and handling it about as well as one might expect a group of teenagers to do so. And further, their behavior subsequent to the theft defines the measure of their true character â€“ helping one another, standing up for what’s right, and finally, taking responsibility for themselves even in circumstances that would quite frankly justify them not doing so.
Ultimately it’s the cost of taking responsibility that gives the characters’ â€“ and in particular, Moses’ â€“ story real gravitas. There’s a sense early on that he’s faking his tough-guy persona, but he’s got the act down so well that even legitimate gangsters take him seriously; but he eventually not only reveals the source of his Spartan toughness, but accepts the blame for his past behavior, and then takes steps to correct his mistakes. And it’s this idea â€“ the inevitable but empowering process of growing up â€“ that really nails that Amblin feeling, of a kid with mostly ordinary problems learns who how to deal with them by conquering a set of circumstances that is fully extraordinary. In channeling that sensibility through Moses’ journey, Cornish creates something that feels triumphant both viscerally and conceptually; the end result is both a brilliant piece of entertainment and a compelling character study.
Admittedly, I wasn’t a fan of Super 8, but Attack the Block makes that film’s Amblin worship seem especially phony, not because there’s any lack of sincerity on Abrams’ part, but because Abrams recreates them like a meticulously staged recital, while Cornish seems to have absorbed those same influences so fully that he can conjure the feeling they evoke from memory, and without seeming as if he’s standing on the shoulders of giants. But ultimately, qualitative comparisons are subjective, if not fully irrelevant, because of course one man’s masterpiece is another’s mediocrity.
In which case, Cornish’s film nevertheless manages to satisfy completely, because it stands on its own and also fits comfortably into a proud cinematic tradition; it owes nothing to any antecedent, and yet feels like the latest in a lineage of crowd-pleasers that all share some magic, intangible quality. In short, Attack the Block is easily one of the year’s best films: fun, scary and exciting, it’s exactly what you want while being unlike anything you’ve ever seen.