Possibly there are exceptions (I’m no connoisseur), but it seems that whenever aliens visit Earth, they stand in allegorically for some popular fear of the era. 1950s films did well trading on fears of an atomic age, while 1970s films were more concerned with loss of identity. In fact, this trope is well enough understood that in Attack the Block one of the disaffected urban youth at the centre of the film gets a speech acknowledging it. For those familiar with the newspaper headlines in the Britain of the 2010s, you’d expect the threat to allegorically represent the fear of immigrants or indeed of the aforesaid urban youth (“hoodies”, to use a popular term referencing a favoured item of clothing). However, Attack the Block is too metropolitan and knowing to be so simplistic: the hoodies, it turns out, are the heroes and the fear is of the state and its oppressive apparatus (the police… sorry, “the feds”).
There’s a lot to like about Joe Cornish’s feature film debut. He comes from a background as a comedian wryly satirising popular culture (particularly on his TV and radio shows with Adam Buxton), and plenty of that shines through here. Attack the Block is not precisely a comedy though it has strong comic elements; it’s more of an updated ‘creature feature’ with ridiculous hairy dog-like aliens, lots of splatter and gore, and most of all, that pervasively resonant allegory.
Our heroes in the fight against the alien menace are led by Moses (John Boyega) and introduced as the kind of nefarious ne’er-do-wells that the tabloids would have us believe are at the core of ‘broken Britain’: mugging virtuous white nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) at the edge of their council estate. However, the film swiftly pushes on from there, undercutting some of those initial assumptions and bringing all of these characters together in the fight against the real threat. Into this mix is introduced the real bad guy of the estate (drug dealer Hi-Hatz, who has the kids under his thumb) and his likeably stoned sidekick Ron (Nick Frost). It’s set against an aggressive soundtrack of disaffected urban music, and the script is packed with contemporary slang.
In a sense, these kids are the core of ‘broken Britain’, but it’s soon established that they are more the outcome of the malaise at this society’s heart rather than the cause, and it’s in them that the film places its trust. There aren’t many films that are more acute about the (psycho)geography of the typical inner-city council estate. This one is located near Oval tube station in South London, near the Elephant & Castle (where I first lived, also in former council estate housing, when I moved to London), and brings together a range of underprivileged people who aren’t all entirely cast out by society. It transpires for example that Sam’s key worker is resident on the same estate: even the burgeoning professional classes can’t always afford more on London’s steep property ladder. And though there’s some hint of community, the sense of bleak emptiness is more suggestive that the space of the council estate — its concrete entrances and tall buildings, winding bike ramps, lighting which switches itself off after only a few seconds — is set against humans and breaks down basic humanity, which of course makes the alien intrusion theme seem the more apt.
Perhaps then the actors are loaded down with a bit too much baggage, but they do well, especially Boyega as the kids’ leader. Attack the Block is a persuasive look at the dehumanising effect of this kind of ghettoised environment, and its inhabitants’ deeply-held fear of the police — albeit via the medium of the monster movie. This is one allegory which hasn’t yet been played out.
Director/Writer Joe Cornish; Cinematographer Tom Townend; Starring John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Nick Frost; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (TV), London, Monday 27 May 2013.