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BY Simcha Fisher
Last night, we watched the 2011 sci-fi thriller Attack the Block (from the producers of Shaun of the Dead). I loved it! I can't remember the last time a movie was so satisfying.
It's not meant for kids or young teens. it uses profanity freely (although that becomes something of an inside joke later in the script), it's intense and scary, it has a few quick scenes of gross-out gore, and it shows lots of people doing drugs. But if you are an older teen or an adult who can tell the difference between a movie that shows certain behaviors and a movie that condones and promotes certain behaviors, then you might really enjoy Attack the Block. (There is no sexual content to this film, unless it slipped by me somewhere in the heavy accents. They do take some getting used to!)
Here's the set-up: a gang of no-good inner city kids terrorizes the neighborhood, mugging a young woman at knifepoint. But before they're through with her, something streaks down from space and crashes into a car. They don't quite know what it is, but it's aggressive, and they kill it. Full of swagger and machismo, they drag the corpse of whatever-it-is to the most secure place they know: the apartment of a local drug dealer. They think all they need to do is figure out the best way to cash in on their luck and success. But things are about to get more complicated.
As British filmmakers seem more free to do, they cast actors who look like real people. If this had been an American film, the teenage girls lounging in their bedroom would have all been professionally made up and dressed like models. But in this movie, some of the girls knew what to do with their hair, and some of them didn't -- just like real girls. Ditto for the apartment interiors: none of them looked like stage sets with a few messy areas thrown in stimulate gritty realism. They just looked like actual crummy apartments.
And ditto for the characters themselves. There was a refreshing lack of stock characters. In an American movie, you could have pegged, within five minutes, which characters were going to live and which would die. You would be able to tell that the privileged, white, pothead poseur with the fabulous head of hair was going to get it, because he deserves it, because he's driving his daddy's fancy car and so on. But -- spoiler -- all that happens in this movie is he gets hit in the nose with a baseball bat because he's not paying attention, and it's kind of funny.
In the course of the film, the ringleader, Moses, undergoes a small but pivotal transformation: he discovers how to channel his natural toughness and charisma from something desperate into something valuable. He begins with a stunted moral code -- that we're responsible for ourselves and for the people on our block, and that's it -- and emerges as a true hero . . . or at least as a young man who has the makings of a real man.
Moses and his followers aren't presented as rough diamonds or noble savages whose morals poignantly and ironically transcend that of the bourgeois upright citizen (although I was afraid that that's where the movie was headed). They really are bad kids doing bad things -- some of them with no parents to guide them, but some of them just looking for a thrill. At the same time, their little gang (with its armory of fireworks and cavalry of mopeds) really does have a moral code. For comparison, we see what true evil does look like, when the drug dealer, High Hat, commands his second to head unarmed into peril. Moses' friends, on the other hand, are constantly on the phone with each other (with the pathetic detail that they're constantly fretting about how many minutes or texts they have left), and they never doubt for a minute that they will come to each others' rescue.
At one point, when it seems like things couldn't get any worse, Moses admits of the dark suspicion that the aliens invading the block are just another plague inflicted on them by the authorities to keep the black man down -- just like drug addiction and AIDS. Everyone stews with this for a moment. And then they all laugh, just because it just sounds kind of stupid. And yet later, when the true heroes of the day are being carted off to jail, someone remarks something like, "Aw, you guys are always arresting the wrong people!" And yup, it's true. There's no grand, cohesive injustice against the poor and downtrodden; but they do get downtrodden -- just like life. The film deftly avoids Being About Something, which makes it all the more compelling when it is true to life.
Is Attack the Block free from formula? Not at all. It's a pretty standard issue sci-fi action thriller flick. And yet it does something brilliant: all of the characters have clearly been raised on standard issue sci fi action thriller flicks and video games. That is part of the subtext, such as it is, of this movie: these are kids who have been raised by TV, and don't even realize that there's more to life than the thrills and platitudes they've seen. They are clearly imitating what they've seen a thousand times on screen. And yet their behavior completely appropriate, because they really are being chased by horrible, ravenous aliens down dark streets and smoky hallways! This layer of removal, as the kids imitate fiction, makes it possible for the filmmakers to deliver thrills and chills, without sacrificing any of the realism that makes you care about the characters.
All around, Attack the Block is an entertaining, solid, nicely crafted little movie that gave me something to think about, without getting all thinky about it.