With writer/director Joe Cornish (one half of the British TV comedy favourite The Adam and Joe Show), actor Nick Frost and producing partners Edgar Wright and Nira Park involved, there's a wealth of talent behind this British comedy-horror. But does Attack the Block live up to the promise made by its makers' reputations? Angela Burton finds out.
Jodie Whittaker plays Sam, a trainee nurse on the way home from work one chilly November 5th, but en route she's mugged by a gang of boys (Moses, Pest, Dennis, Jerome and Biggz). Before they can do more than pull out a knife and take her phone, purse and ring, they are interrupted by something falling from the sky. It crushes a nearby car and the gang advances until whatever it was that made the hole jumps out and scares them, scratching their leader's face and disappearing. These boys have a reputation to maintain so they follow the creature, first scaring it with fireworks then beating it to death. They hoist up the carcass and drag it around with them for a while before taking it to the “penthouse” flat of dope dealer Ron (Nick Frost) for safekeeping. Unfortunately for them the alien isn’t alone and soon a swarm of huge black beasties with glowing teeth are descending on the tower block. So can our mini-villains step up and become heroes?
Joe Cornish wrote and directed the film, his debut as a director. But it's not actually his first feature film script – only the first to make it to the big screen. He also co-wrote the screenplay for The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, but Spielberg's huge animated production won't be released until the close of 2011. In the meantime, this small, high-concept film gives a sense of what he can do. There's much potential but overall, for a comedy-horror, it's not quite as scary nor as funny as it should be. High points include some well-directed action set pieces, the alien design and their fast, brutal attacks – impressive for its small budget.
Yet there are also a few things that don’t quite add up. The aliens invade under the cover of fireworks but with the whole of the city staring skywards, how is it that the gang members are the only ones to notice? During the chase scenes, the kids easily outrun the aliens on foot and on push bikes as they’re pursued through a surprisingly empty tower block. The only other residents they encounter are two young kids desperate to be just like them. There is also an attempt to engender sympathy for the crew by pitting them against bullying police who they say are hounding them for no reason – but since we've already seen them mug someone, it feels flimsy.
That's the film's chief problem (at least for this reviewer): the unlikeability of the characters. It's hard to sympathise with a group of 15-year-olds who pull a knife on a woman. Even as the film attempts to redeem them, as when they try to make up with their victim Sam, it merely feels like a hollow way to enlist her help. It's meant to suggest that in the face of a common enemy, disparate people find their differences dissolving but when they say, “There are worse things to be scared of than us tonight” it just feels like another threat.
The gang has one well-drawn character, the above-mentioned leader Moses (John Boyega, who also pulls off the best performance). The rest are just faintly delineated sidekicks, sometimes interchangeable, whose function is to follow Moses' schemes. The film's attempt to mould them into heroes is unconvincing: originally motivated by aggression, they are quick to flee when things get rough and manage to drag other people into danger. Attack the Block doesn’t succeed in humanising the hoodie, though it does spend plenty of time arming at least one of them with an arsenal of excuses.
Nurse Sam is our way into identifying with the group but she seems lost and isolated for the majority of the running time. Meanwhile, as the posh comic relief, Luke Treadaway entertains though gags about his attempts to sound 'street' get a little wearing and Frost's character feels like a slight riff on roles he's played before.
In spite of the goodwill, talent involved and some excellent moments, Attack the Block doesn’t quite hit the mark. Perhaps the man sitting behind me in the cinema had the right idea when he left after 20 minutes. I’m not sure that I got much more out of the film than he did, although I stayed in my seat until the credits rolled.
Rating on a scale of 5 neon gnashers: 2
Release date: May 11
Written and directed by: Joe Cornish
Cast: Nick Frost, Jodie Whittaker, Luke Treadaway, John Boyega, Franz Drameh, Alex Esmail, Leeon Jones, Simon Howard
Running time: 88 minutes