Monday, May 09, 2011

Review - Attack the Block

The riskiest decision Joe Cornish has made in his debut feature Attack the Block is the manner in which he introduces us to the film's protagonists. The movie opens with a female nurse (Jodie Whittaker) walking home alone at night through a South London estate and being confronted by a gang of hooded teens who threaten her at knifepoint before stealing her purse, phone and jewellery. At this point in the film, our sympathies lie squarely with the victim of this crime, and we instantly hope that the muggers will quickly get their comeuppance, but they are actually the good guys in this tale, and they're characters we are asked to empathise with as their lives are subsequently placed in danger.

The danger comes from the skies, with the mugging of Sam being interrupted by an unidentified creature plummeting to earth. The gang, all bravado and pumping adrenaline, make light work of this single alien, but it is merely the first of its kind and soon they are descending meteor-like all over the block. Cornish doesn't waste much time setting this plot into motion, and there's a pleasing economy about his style overall, as he rarely slackens the pace throughout a trim 88 minutes. The downside of his streamlined approach is that there isn't a great deal of room for variation and the film does start to feel a little one-note after a while. Too many scenes of the kids being chased by the creatures or hiding out in their block of flats while the monsters lurk outside have a tendency to blur into one another, and there are few genuine surprises to be found in Cornish's narrative. Similarly, Cornish struggles to imbue his characters with any sense of depth. Aside from the gang's leader Moses (ably played by John Boyega), few of the central characters are given the dimensions required to make an impact individually, but the actors playing these roles give confident and enthusiastic turns nonetheless. They certainly don't look out of place alongside their more experienced co-stars Whittaker, Nick Frost (as an easygoing drug dealer) and Luke Treadaway (a posh white boy whose painful attempts to connect with the gang are milked for laughs).

The most memorable figures in the film, however, are the monsters themselves. The design of these creatures is brilliant in its simplicity; they are essentially a black, featureless mass with glowing fangs, and that lack of definition ensures they work on a number of levels. They remain a mysterious entity throughout, and Cornish exploits their appearance to stage a number of striking sequences with some very impressive lighting (top marks to cinematographer Thomas Townend, doing superb work in his first film). Attack the Block proves that Cornish is a genre-savvy director with ideas and a keen eye for effective details, but while it is a promising debut feature, it never develops into anything beyond that. Still, it is a rare British picture that allows its young, black, inner city characters to ultimately leave behind the stereotypes associated with their milieu and actually become the heroes of their own story. It only took an alien invasion to effect such a transformation.