Tuesday, February 14, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Attack the Block (2011)

From the 1960s through the early 1980s, the anti-hero often dominated American genre cinema. 

The anti-hero might readily be defined as a character who questions authority, who is disillusioned by what society "has become," and who has succumbed to the nitty-gritty of life's vicissitudes while still possessing a personal code of ethics.

Director John Carpenter gave the world a number of great anti-heroes in his early cinematic efforts.  Napoleon Wilson in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (1981) are two prime examples of the "noble criminal" archetype, one memorable brand of anti-hero. 

In all likelihood, Carpenter developed these great characters from his enduring love of the Western movie, a format which generated such notable anti-heroes as Clint Eastwood's "The Man with No Name" in films including A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).  

Other popular anti-heroes roiling the cinema during the 1970s included Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) of Death Wish (1974) and Dirty Harry Callahan -- Eastwood again -- of Dirty Harry (1971) and its sequels.  A later example of the anti-hero includes the gang members from The Warriors (1979): thugs and criminals who audiences came to support and root for during their dangerous odyssey, despite the fact they were law-breakers.

To some extent, Star Wars (1977) was George Lucas's deliberate response to a pop culture world that seemed to champion anti-heroes above traditional heroes.  Yet the anti-hero has had a long life in films despite the success of Lucas's blockbuster.  David Twohy's and Vin Diesel's "Riddick" character is a prime example of this figure in more recent cinematic fare.

A careful observer will also note  that the 1970s the cinematic anti-heroes (not of the Western variety) mostly fought their battles in gritty urban settings.  They lived in a world of urban blight, rampant crime, and failed social policies.  The law of these cities was the same as that of the jungle: kill or be killed.

What is it about the anti-hero and his or her difficult environment that audiences find so fascinating?

I suspect the answer rests in the anti-hero's deliberate rejection of the status-quo: a state or culture that feels unjust or unfair, or that has failed to promote ideals of liberty, safety and even personal security.   I believe we all respond, perhaps unconsciously, to the trigger of rebellion, especially if that rebellion feels justified by easily identified wrongs or transgressions.  At least that's what Fascination author Sally Hogshead might tell us.

Given the economic realities of our post-Recession world today, it seems like a perfect time to champion the anti-hero once more, and that's precisely what the enormously exciting science-fiction horror film Attack the Block accomplishes with so much flair and delight.

The film elevates colorful characters we wouldn't normally approve of or sympathize with -- tough young gang members in South London -- and transforms them into the last line of defense against a brutal, highly-localized alien invasion.  In championing the anti-hero in such fashion, Attack the Block legitimately seems a throwback to Assault on Precinct 13, or The Warriors.   Like those films, it suggests that the "establishment" is not always the hero or the good guys and that real courage might emerge from the most unexpected of places.

Even the inner city.  

And like those films I've referenced above, Attack the Block is suffused with this strange, unfettered sense of joie de vivre.  It's as though the anti-heroes possess some deeper sense of self-knowledge and "truth" than the average person on the street, perhaps because regular folk have not lived the day-to-day survival game of the film's lead characters.  Here, the young characters boast a unique manner of self-expression, and on first blush even seem a little daft. But after a time you detect how the youngsters capably adapt and contend with their monstrous opponents in the pitched battle between "inner city" and "outer space."

I only wish Skyline (2010) and Battle L.A. (2010) had been able to tell their stories of an alien ground invasion with such flair, energy and coherence.

Populated by colorful characters and egregiously sinister monsters, boasting gory thrills, and buttressed by a wicked sense of humor, Attack the Block is a truly joyous cinematic experience, especially if you grew up in the 1970s and remember and admire this brand of exploitation film.

"Even if it is an alien invasion, they're four foot high, blind and got kicked to death by a bunch of kids. We got nothing to worry about."

In Attack the Block, a group of young gang members led by sullen Moses (John Boyega) mug a white girl, a young medical student, Sam (Jodie Whittaker).  She calls the police, but soon there are bigger fish to fry. 

A meteor strikes a parked car nearby, and Moses ends up fighting -- and defeating -- a white-haired alien monster. 

The gang, which consists of characters with names like "Biggz" and "Pest" (another call-back to The Warriors), drags their trophy across town and attempts to hide it inside the penthouse apartment of the local drug dealer, Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter).  This is one of the funniest sequences in the film, and evidences that sense of joie-de-vivre.  The gang drags their alien trophy down the street, getting all kind of commentary on it, and the moment is both tense and intensely funny.  The director hangs back in long shots as much as possible, allowing us to find the humor in the moment for ourselves.

Soon, however, more meteors crash on Earth, and they house larger, more frightening, black-furred, glow-in-the-dark-toothed alien monsters. 

These monsters seem dead set on hunting and taking out Moses, like they are pursuing a gang vendetta, perhaps.   So Moses and his buddies seek refuge in his apartment building, Wyndham Towers.  There, Sam rejoins with Moses and his gang after the local police are eviscerated by the alien dog-creature/things in her very presence.

Only slowly beginning to trust one another, Sam and Moses begin to consider their options as the ferocious alien monsters begin scaling the walls of Wyndham Towers and infiltrating the building...

"I'd like to see the brother who's going to fight that."
 
Rarely pausing for obvious moments of verbal or visual introspection, Attack the Block is a rousing action, exploitation flick, and one which gets you solidly behind its anti-heroic characters.
 
The film's director, one Joe Cornish, is mightily adept at visually transmitting critical information without overdoing it.


One brilliantly-orchestrated and relatively subtle scene late in the film involves a pan across Moses' bedroom in the midst of the action, and you can tell from a single glance (at his Spider-Man bed sheets...) that he is nothing more than a child in a man's body.

This shot alone engenders a brand of deeply-rooted sympathy for this particular anti-hero. And this sympathy makes the film's final battle more than mere pissing contest between man and alien. Instead it's a battle between this one very unlucky, very lonely kid -- one who never got anything from anybody -- and an implacable alien horde.

The very fact that these gang members at Wyndham Towers have been conditioned to expect no help from any authority (either in the form of the police, parents, or a local drug lord) informs their decision-making process throughout the film, and you really start to understand how Moses thinks.  He's used to being pursued, attacked, chased and harassed.  The aliens are just the latest comers.

In fact, these kids -- living in a world of drug-dealing, video games and no parental guidance -- even suspect the establishment itself is out to destroy them.  At one point Moses notes: "Government probably bred those things to kill black boys. First they sent in drugs, then they sent guns and now they're sending monsters in to kill us. They don't care man. We ain't killing each other fast enough. So they decided to speed up the process."

It's a paranoid rant, but living in Moses' reality, it's easy to see how such paranoia could become pervasive. You see enough young men, young friends, go to prison or die violently, and you believe the deck is entirely stacked against you.

You come home each night to no one who cares -- except perhaps an alcoholic uncle -- and the world looks pretty grim, even before alien invaders show up on the scene to threaten you.  This is who Moses is, and one of the great things about Attack the Block is how Cornish gets us to see things through his eyes.

Traditionally, we expect our anti-heroes to be "hard boiled," so-to-speak and Moses fits the bill perfectly.  But he's also emotionally affecting because he's not a battle-hardened, disillusioned veteran, like Snake Plissken.  No, this is a kid who, by his early teenage years, has already given up on the possibility that life could be good.  The film doesn't dwell on the unfortunate nature of Moses' life, it just observes it in the course of telling a thrilling and bloody tale.

Boyega gives a great performance as Moses, a stoic character with a steely glare, and his charisma in the role also quickly lands you in his corner.  The more you watch him, the more intriguing he seems.

I also deeply admired how Attack the Block treats its female characters. Not just Sam, who is white and middle-class, but all the teenage denizens of Wyndham Towers. These girls are no mere appendages for the male characters, and in one bravura sequence, the girls collectively fend off a pack of the alien monsters in a small apartment.  Again, the film walks a narrow line between humor and thrills, and never falls from that tight rope.

I loved the use of language (and slang, specifically) in the film, and Attack the Block boasts some funny one liners too, including the description of the aliens as "big gorilla-wolf mo fos."  I also enjoyed Sam's rejoinder to the boys that she must have "missed" the "class on alien bite wounds."  The film's sense of humor extends to many of the gruesome and dangerous situations.  One of the young gang members gets trapped in a garbage bin for the bulk of the movie, and there's another scene in which a drug dealer ends up in an elevator with the monsters...and well, the confrontation is surprising.

Attack the Block is more than just a commendable study of anti-heroes.  The film asks us about violence itself, and even "pack" or "herd" instincts.  The aliens come to Earth because they are driven by an instinct to follow one of their own, no matter what.   They don't seem capable of defying their own animalistic, pack instincts.

Is the same thing true of the human beings at Wyndham Towers?  It is just the nature of these inner city kids to be thugs and crooks?   To form and join gangs?  Or is it the lack of compassionate and healthy nurture that has led them to such bad ends so early in life?    There's a sense here of the alienated within our own societies battling the aliens of another society.

A great, and optimistic quality about Attack the Block is that it suggests that human beings -- even woefully disadvantaged ones -- boast the capacity to grow beyond violent instincts, and to fight for the common good, for the neighborhood as it were.  As someone who has been vocally critical of the hero's journey or Monomyth because it is about the "chosen" individual rescuing society at large, I appreciated that Attack the Block, in addition to featuring anti-hero Moses, showcased a community effort to fend off alien invasion.

It's been a long while since I've seen an exploitation film this nimble, this playful, this downright thrilling, but Attack the Block actually had me and my wife on our feet by film's end, both with call backs to films like Assault on Precinct 13 and The Warriors,  and for its steadfast championing of those among us who always seem to have precious few champions in polite society 

Our first "instinct" when it was over was that we wanted to watch Attack the Block again...

8 comments:

  1. I'm in the minority on this one John, but it didn't work for me. I basically could never get over the "anti" part of the "anti-hero". The kids, in my opinion, were jerks. I couldn't get past the fact they were robbing a defenseless woman to start the movie. I never developed a rooting interest in them after that, which left me cold for the remainder of the film.

    Add to that the fact that (sort of a spoiler) never really developed into an "invasion movie", Nick Frost was criminally underused, and I probably was oversold on the movie and it couldn't compete with the hype it had received, and I was disappointed in it more than anything else.

    But again, I'm pretty sure I'm in the minority on this.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I like your take on the anti-hero, John, and Attack the Block definitely explores this theme.

    I too liked the fact that all the characters in the film gradually develop into – if not sympathetic individuals – then certainly understandable ones. I’m not sure how much the gang in Attack the Block “grow beyond [their] violent instincts”, because it is precisely their aggressive nature that causes them to go on the offensive against the aliens early in the film and which ultimately gets them – and in particular Moses – into trouble to begin with.

    I don’t think it is fair to compare Attack the Block with Skyline and particularly Battle: Los Angeles. Attack the Block is primarily a comedy – a dark satire perhaps – but a comedy none-the-less. Skyline should have developed its characters as well as ATB, but they weren’t as interesting or as compelling as the characters from ATB because they were not fighting to protect their “turf”, but merely looking for a way to hide or escape from the alien invasion. Given the scale of the attack in Skyline, flight rather than fight seems the more rational move – even if it is much less interesting from a narrative viewpoint. Battle: Los Angeles is dominated by professional soldiers, trained to fight and protect, so their situation is similar to those of the kids in ATB. However, the scale of the alien attack in B:LA is so much larger than in ATB, that the characters in B:LA have to accept a much smaller victory than the kids of ATB. I did enjoy Attack the Block much more than either of the other two recent alien invasion movies, but I don’t think either of those films could have worked as anti-hero films or dark satires.

    I do think the anti-hero is making a comeback of sorts – if it ever truly left. Our current economic situation is similar to the 1970’s when the anti-hero was at its peak. Our military situation in Iraq and Afghanistan is similar to the Viet Nam conflict of the 1970’s as well and I think a negative reaction to the government in general has a tendency for people to want more of a non-traditional hero to root for. Still, I think there is a place for both archetypes in current cinema; provided they are done as well as a film like Attack the Block.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Loved the article... Darn it, you beat me to this... I wanted to write about ATB on my blog... but really quick, I saw this film a long time ago... and purchased it when it first came out... My only gripe was the language. It seemed that they were spouting out F bombs every five seconds. It's a movie I wouldn't let my little brother watch.. yet.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I am pleased that you wrote a review on this. My fiance and I loved this film, yet we both thought that due to the fact that it is a cast of minorities, British minorities at that. Would this film get it's due. BT wrote that they could not get past the fact they robbed a defenseless woman. Well maybe Little Lord Fauntleroy did not notice, but this is a story on the inner city, not some suburban joy ride like 'Goonies'. The realities of the inner city are just that, it's victimization.

    Terrific film, terrific first-tim efforts from Mr. Cornish and young Mr. Boyega too.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Wow. I never thought voicing the opinion that robbing innocent women at knife-point was "bad" would be particularly controversial. I understand things are tough for the "protagonists", but I'm still pretty sure sticking a knife in someone's face is still frowned upon, even if things are tough at home. If that makes me Little Lord Fauntleroy, I guess I'll own it.

    ReplyDelete
  6. A dissenting opinion is hardly "controversial".
    Redemption is a powerful theme in film, the scene of victimization was an establishing sequence that without the scene, that so severely damaged your psyche, later redemption of Boyega's character would have had a lesser effect. If you say you'll own the moniker, then own it you shall.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi everyone,

    Great comments here on Attack the Block.

    I see there's a disagreement in terms of the film, and that's okay.

    But let's make sure we are all respectful of others when we voice opinions. I don't think any lines have been crossed here, but I also don't want anyone's feelings to be hurt.

    I love you all! :)

    best,
    John

    ReplyDelete
  8. I see there's a disagreement in terms of the film, and that's okay.
    very funny videos,

    ReplyDelete