HALFTIME REPORT: Attack the Block (2011)

With Halftime Report, your good friends at SportsAlcohol.com revisit some of their favorite films from the first half of this decade.

For monster fans, creature design in the 21st century has been something of a mixed bag. Digital animation has freed designers from the shackles of the human form, limitations in terms of textures and fur, and even the bounds of physics altogether. In order to provide a grounding in reality for all these pixels, designers and animators often talk about looking to real animals for physiognomic principles and behavior. Reality is the goal, and much effort is expended in simulating the way joints interact or how skin stretches across muscles. This is maybe best exemplified by Neville Page’s muscly multi-limbed creatures for movies like Cloverfield, Super 8, Avatar, and Star Trek. But these impressively realistic creatures often place an emphasis on the Real over the Iconic. It seems silly to use a word like mundane when discussing such weird and impressive creations, but these creatures (with the feelings of sameness they can sometimes inspire) can miss that special charge that a truly iconic monster design can carry. Obviously, creating an iconic monster is much easier said than done, but it’s still worth celebrating when somebody pulls it off. And the aliens in Attack the Block, with their uncanny movements and simple-but-clever silhouette-and-glowy-bits aesthetic, stand out as the best of the decade so far. Using an inspired blend of suit acting (with invaluable work by movement coach and performer Terry Notary) and animation (both to enhance the puppetry and to create the aliens’ inky black, almost two dimensional look), Attack the Block‘s monsters are still so great they’re nearly enough to make it one of the best films of the 2010s on their own.

But watching the film in 2015 America reveals greater relevance than even a few years ago. The film is set in south London and directly addresses the specific cultural ways that young, mostly black, kids who live in council estate tower blocks (Americans, think housing projects) are vilified, and the societal issues at play are startlingly universal. After the opening, a mugging that wouldn’t be out of place in any reactionary genre movie from decades past, with a gang of black kids menacing a pretty white woman, it’d be easy to imagine the version of the movie that kills off these thugs in a pre-title sequence to establish the threat. Instead, when Moses and his gang run into the building where they’ve cornered a mysterious creature, they aren’t just slaughtered off-screen but instead emerge victorious, establishing a very different dynamic for the rest of the film. Instead of just following the story of the gang’s victim, Jodie Whittaker’s Samantha (a nurse who lives in the same tower block as the kids), the kids emerge as the heroes of the film. Cornish and his actors do a wonderful job of humanizing these characters, making them funny and hugely lovable without ignoring or excusing their worst behavior. This simple extension of empathy and respect feels almost radical when viewed in an America where we’ve had a truly horrible number of opportunities to witness the awful spectacle of the American news media greeting each new police shooting of an unarmed black guy with attempts to determine just how much the deceased had it coming based on their thuggish appearance or potential criminal background. The understanding and mutual respect that develops between Samantha and Moses is even more moving in this context, as is the conversation the kids have speculating about the government having “bred those things to kill black boys.” It’s not the case, but getting to know these kids we can see why it would feel like a possibility to them.

While it feels a little frustrating watching Attack the Block now knowing that Joe Cornish hasn’t yet directed another feature, there’s some solace in seeing ads for Star Wars: The Force Awakens that feature John Boyega front and center. His performance as Moses, which has that movie star thing of combining real acting and seemingly effortless charisma even when he spends so much of the film not saying much, marked him as a young actor to watch for anybody who saw Attack the Block in 2011, so it’s gratifying to know that a much bigger audience is about to see what he’s got.