Monday, 16 May 2011

Film #44 Attack The Block

In a nutshell: London, the present. It's bonfire night and young nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is walking home from work. On her way back she is mugged by a gang of youths (who, unbeknownst to either party live in the same titular tower block) led by the taciturn Moses (John Boyega). Immediately after the crime, a meteorite crashes into nearby parked car with a payload of a mysterious multi-fanged alien creature. The gang respond to the creature's aggression in kind, ultimately killing the creature and return triumphantly to the block to hide the carcass in the marijuana hot-house cultivated by good-natured dealer Roy (Nick Frost) and owned by short-fused local gangster Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). However, before long more of the beastly aliens start crashing to earth with aggressive intent, fixed on apparently killing everyone in the block; Sam is thrown together with her muggers (and posh stoner Brewis (Luke Treadaway)) as they are forced to confront the alien threat together.

Verdict? Well, the central conceit - 'outer-space meets inner-city' is a bit of a red herring. Essentially this is a film about class, played out on the backdrop of alien attack. The aliens themselves are purely a force of nature (the exterior peril could just as easily have been wild animals, or zombies, or a tornado) - the real conflict at the heart of the film is played out between the collision of the urban working-class of Moses & his cohorts with the middle class world(s) of Sam and Brewis.

And if the film has a central problem it's that this just isn't enough to carry a feature-length production. It's a slight concept and, given that the aliens exist solely as a threat to life and limb with only incidental motivation the conflict is kind-of resolved part way through with little sense that anything other than the status quo would resume after the credits roll. An interesting contrast is with Alien, which deals with a similar (if less nuanced) class divide among the crew members, but with a vicious xenomorph enemy that is more than just a ball of toothy murderousness - it's want to use our bodies to breed. OK, Alien is much 'harder' SF and it's maybe unfair to hold this debut feature up against a recognised classic but given the quality of the film-making - and this is a solid, entertaining movie - it should be judged against peers.

In terms of the performances, Nick Frost pretty much does the Nick Frost thing (which is fine), Jumayn Hunter purveys madness effectively and Luke Treadaway does what he can with the film's weak link. John Boyega stands out among the debutants with a combination of bravado and vulnerability: it's not easy to be both cinematic hero and low-life criminal in the same breath. Jodie Whittaker as Sam is quietly superb at the centre of things, carrying the weight of being a cipher for (let's be honest) the film's largely white, middle class audience. The rest of the young cast are credible and fun and, as with Peter Mullan's Neds, show the depth of young talent available to British directors at the moment.

A lot's been said about the use of teen slang, particularly in relation to the film getting a US release, and it does take a while for the argot to settle on the ear. For what it's worth I lived for a year or so in a similar kind of area in south London and spent enough time on the top deck of the 159 to get a feel for it - so while the vocabulary is legit, if anything it seems to be over-used. I may well be wrong (and director Joe Cornish commendably spent a lot of time in youth groups etc. consulting with kids to get the dialogue right) but it did seem the intent of the intent of the script to jar the audience, at least at the start (get me?).

One final issue to be addressed regards the positioning of the film, which is being marketed to the Shaun of the Dead audience. So though it is produced by Nira Park and shares some visual sensibilities with Edgar Wright's work, it's very different kind of film: despite references galore (Tremors, Gremlins, La Haine, Lock Stock..., City of God, and even J.G. Ballard's novel High Rise), the film itself is played with a straight bat, rather than being the kind of merry homage-to-genre that Pegg/Frost fans might be expecting.

As with the recent Source Code, I'm being overly-critical of a film I enjoyed because its director deserves to be held to a very high standard. Cornish - whose promise and flair could be seen over a decade ago with his & Adam Buxton's cuddly-toy remakes - shows a restraint and focus that is unusual for a debut director, particularly on a debut with as reasonably-sized a budget as here. The smooth editing, the intelligent use of music, the McKee-prescribed pacing and structure of the story all display a rare assurance. We can expect bigger and better things in future - but as an entertainment rather than a heavyweight piece of cinema Attack the Block is perfectly fine. Clocks in at a Slut-friendly 90 minutes too, therefore: