SXSW 2011 Review: ATTACK THE BLOCK
Editor's note: this review was originally published on March 16, 2011 as a SXSW Film Festival review.
Making a good creature feature is similar to baking a cake - the absence or excess of a few key ingredients can lead to a decidedly unpleasant experience. Necessities include good creature design, characters that an audience cares about (until they get eaten, of course), a deliberate pace (including exciting chases in addition to well-timed moments of suspense), and a good story. I was hoping that ATTACK THE BLOCK would be a good creature feature, but was instead treated to a great one.
The film takes place in South London and the story begins when a nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is jumped by a hooded gang of youths and their leader Moses (John Boyega). An alien invasion interrupts the mugging, and from this point forward, ATTACK THE BLOCK keeps its foot on the throttle, letting up only for laughs and character development. One of the film's many strengths is how sure of itself it is; ATTACK never waits for the audience to catch up with it. It's refreshing to see ideas and thrills explode from the screen at such a furious pace, with barely enough time to catch a breath. The film utilizes practical creature effects (as opposed to the rampant use of CGI found in most recent works), which work well with the old school feel that the film wears proudly on its sleeve.
ATTACK THE BLOCK also succeeds because it toys with genre conventions without winking at the audience too often. The film references other movies that inspired it, but is still a beast of its own. It separates itself from simply good monster films by having a great story complete with subtext, if you're interested in it. While films like THE THING and THE HOST are great entertainment, what makes them great films is that you can look at them from different points of view (THE THING tackles the paranoia of AIDS, while THE HOST provides socio-political commentary on South Korea). Young gangs are a problem in South London, and by giving these characters monsters to fight, the film humanizes the "monstrous" young gang to the audience.
The acting in ATTACK THE BLOCK is tremendous, especially given the lack of screen credits for most of the young cast. While several acting veterans do appear in the film (SHAUN OF THE DEAD's Nick Frost, for one), the cast is composed primarily of first-timers, with John Boyega as the obvious stand-out. Boyega's portrayal of Moses is crucial to ATTACK THE BLOCK, and the young actor gladly takes the film on his shoulders with an assured performance. The inexperience of the cast and crew works in the film's favor - what could have been a tired monster movie retread ends up feeling fresh and new.
In addition to most of the cast, this is also the feature film debut for director Joe Cornish and cinematographer Thomas Townend, who both show tremendous promise. Edgar Wright (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD) is an executive producer on the film, and also a writing partner of Cornish. The pair collaborated on the screenplays for the upcoming Steven Spielberg film THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: SECRET OF THE UNICORN and ANT-MAN. Although this is Cornish's directorial debut, he's apparently had the idea for ATTACK THE BLOCK in his head for the better part of a decade, and his love for the material and genre are present in every frame.
This is a film that has it all: great characters (as well as character arcs), suspense, laughs, thrills, and most importantly, a story that keeps an audience enthralled for the entirety of its runtime. Oh, and badass monsters, too.