Silver Screen Resolution: Attack the Block

Back in the saddle after August‘s shaky month where my resolve faltered.

The rules recap:

This year, I’ve resolved to see twelve new-to-me spec fic movies in a no-doubt vain attempt at catching up with popular culture. One movie per month, the results of watching said movie discussed at the beginning of the next month. Do you all have any idea how many awesome-sounding spec fic movies there are now? Of course, you do. You’ve been watching them! Me, I’m spoiled for choice at this point. So I made myself some rules.

  1. It must be spec-fic. For review here on Spec-Chic and for myself. I just prefer it.  Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror. Even kid’s movies if they fit one of those genres!
  2. For the most part, the movie must be popular spec-fic.  Something people around me have been talking about.
  3. I have to see at least a third of them in the theater, for the truest “in the moment” connection. Rule amended! Theater-seen movies are part of the Spec Chic Sound Off!s instead, which technically means I’m seeing more than a dozen movies in 2017. At this rate, I might catch up to my college movie viewing numbers.  I will never ever reach again the dizzying numbers of movies I saw as a teen, though.  But that’s just what you did when you were a teen in a blazing hot city–you sought shelter in the mall movie theaters.

This month’s pick was Attack the Block. I’ve been skimping on horror, and we’re heading into that time of year where I start thinking hey, I love horror, don’t I? I should watch more of it.

Why I Chose It: Because of all the good things people have said about it. It has a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes (though I chose not to read the reviews, preferring to come at it as purely as I could). It also was a chance to watch Doctor Who act against Finn the Stormtrooper and Jax the Superhero. I couldn’t resist that. Plus PC Danny Butterman. To me, it seemed like the little movie that could. Came out of nowhere and has grown in status. Plus monsters with bio-luminescence.

Why I Didn’t Go See It Originally: Just flat out missed it. I can’t really tell you why since it came out six years ago, and I barely recall what I did on Tuesday, but I assume the usual slew of reasons. 1) I rarely see horror in the theaters. I like to have control over the gore on my screen. Plus too much screen screaming gives me a screaming headache! 2) It’s an indie picture and thinking back I couldn’t recall if it even came to my city or not. After some research, it seems like our local theater did get it in September of 2011, six months after it had actually been released. I can’t imagine it stayed long: low-budget, indie, horror? That’s the kind of movie that’s the proverbial flash in the pan in this town, so I’m sure that it was gone before I’d made up my mind to watch it.

Spoilers Below!


What I think now that I’ve seen it: So, out of all the movies I’ve seen on this Resolution, this is probably the first one I really regret not seeing at the time of its release. I found it surprisingly painful to watch in 2017. Not because of any flaw in the movie — it’s only been six years, so the clothing didn’t get ridiculous, the hair was fine, the special effects were solid.

As a side note, good choice on the movie’s part to use physical puppet monsters rather than CGI — they held up surprisingly well, because six years of CGI progress can be remarkably different.

So, it wasn’t the movie itself that made me regret watching it in 2017, but because as I watched it now, I found the horror entirely embedded in the real world stuff — the lost youths making dangerous or cruel decisions in the name of posturing, the police who hated the boys, the class divide, the racial divide, and the fucking council block which just kept making me think of Grenfell.

So, instead of enjoying alien mayhem, I ended up really sad during and after watching it. The writer (Joe Cornish) did a solid job of not making the ending implausible for the world he’d set up. But instead of finding a peculiar triumph in it — the white nurse/mugging victim declaring Moses and Pest her neighbors and protectors, Moses’s name being chanted by the crowd — it still felt sad. That somehow this would be the high point of Moses’s messed-up life, and it cost him his friends and his freedom.

I think if I’d seen Attack the Block even a couple of years ago — before race relations in the United States became so overtly ugly, before stories of police shootings filled every newspaper every freaking month, and before we watched Grenfell burn on international television — it would have been a radically different experience. It might have been easy to accept Attack the Block as a mostly madcap story about a group of would-be gangsters fighting aliens on their home turf. The explorations of Moses’s life-expectations and villainous start would have been interesting, not tragic.

Another side note: the Heygate estate, the building where they filmed this, was demolished in 2014, which I can’t help think a good thing, because great place for filming aside, that was a horribly depressing apartment complex. Do not get me started on Brutalist architecture.

Doesn’t this walkway just scream welcome home? Brutalists!!!

The Good: I loved the casting, of course. Even now, thinking of them as Doctor Who, Finn, Jax, etc., I still found myself sinking into these particular characters.

I liked the writing. This was a viciously efficient movie; in and out in 88 minutes. Joe Cornish (who I had to look up; I doubt I will ever be the kind of person who knows screenwriters names, sorry) also wrote Ant-Man, which I found fun — though Ant-Man would have been better with less time spent on the hopelessly mustache-twirling villain. Cornish has a good ability to write cohesive, yet disparate group conversations: in Attack the Block, Moses’s “Fam” all felt like they’d been knocking around together for years and each knew their place in the group. In Ant-Man, you get the same (though much sillier in tone) with Luis and his group of would-be thieves. Writing group dialogue that feels natural is so hard for me that I always notice when it’s well done. I felt like the actors did a good job with these characters, but that Cornish helped them along quite a bit by showing us lots of character facets. It would have been easy to play into the usual group divisions — the brain, the brawn, the wisecracker, the sad sack, the girl — but Moses’s group just felt like a collection of teens. And they reminded me that there are very few things as prone to making bad decisions as a group of teenage boys. (Sorry guys, but hey, you grow out of it!) Even the final battle was comprised of nothing but a series of extremely iffy decisions based on very little information, and a lot of hope. Plus, sudden unexpected ninja-like abilities on Moses’s part.

I liked the aliens, though because this was so much a “beat up the aliens!” kind of movie, there was little to no theorizing about them. That’s (mostly) okay; they had glow in the dark teeth and that’s what counts.

Teeeeeeeeth!

The Neutral: While I really liked the writing, in the end, this was a super straight-forward “kill the aliens!” kind of plot. This is my (mostly) from above. For that kind of plot, I thought the aliens got a little bit short-shrift. I didn’t really buy into the two stoners’ theory that Moses and his buddies killed a female and interrupted some sort of mating space swarm. Because, wait, what? If that’s the case, and the gang is being hunted because they’re covered in female pheromones, I’d expect less devouring and more… well, aliens humping their legs. And I know that there are extreme cases of sexual dimorphism out there in nature, but bald, grey, monkey-fish-looking alien followed by a horde of “wolf gorilla motherfuckers” that run on all fours and have bio-luminescence?

Still, I did enjoy the premise shift: instead of space aliens attacking soldiers and scientists (as they so often seem to do) allowing for lots of white-board theorizing and computer modeling and round table discussions where characters express what they’ve learned, Attack the Block gives us poorly educated teens, a stoner who watches too many nature programs, and a nurse who doesn’t care as long as she manages to survive the night. So the fact that no one really talks about the aliens in a scientific way is a neutral that kind of comes back around to a quasi-good?

Yes, these are the “brains” of the story. Be afraid.

The Bad: Uneven special effects, maybe? Uneven gore tone? There were some very effective deaths — Dennis’s helmet being slowly crushed between glowing teeth was a good one. And then there were much less effective deaths — bite the nose off the gangster while the monsters claw him apart, which came across more goofy than effective.

I thought the smoke machine was out of control; they could have used that 50% less than they did.

But really, as you’ll have gathered, I don’t have many complaints about this movie. It does exactly what it set out to do — invert the basic alien attack movie into something familiar yet new.

It also reminds me that I’m not sure I actually like horror movies. If SF is the story of extrapolating our future, and fantasy stories are all about the return to the status quo/improving things for one set of characters, what’s horror? Exposing the bones and sinew of the now? Revealing the seamy underbelly of our society? Horror seems to be to be about things changing for the worse. Horror says, hey, here’s a terrible foe that you might survive, but you won’t survive unscathed. At best, you end up sadder and wiser, and maybe get to re-evaluate your life. At worst? You lose your future and your life.

In Attack the Block, the revelation isn’t about monsters (It almost never is.); it’s about a lost-his-way kid who makes the wrong decisions, has to clean up the resultant mess, and literally pull himself back to higher ground without any help. And once he’s done that, atoned as best he can, the adult authorities sweep in to punish him. I say that 2017 made this movie hard to watch for me, but on the other hand, I think Cornish meant it to be hard to watch in 2011, too. There’s got to be a reason that the biggest revelation in the story has nothing to do with aliens, or why they’re here, or things that the would-be-gang has done. The biggest, most “shocking” revelation is Moses’s age.

I think, in the end, when I want to watch/read “horror” what I really want is dark fantasy. I want an ending where things improve for the heroes post climax. And here, well… I keep turning it over in my head, and I don’t see this ending well for Moses. At absolute unbelievable best: the law finds the bodies of a bunch of alien monsters and says whoops, how good of you to stop them from eating the city, jolly good show lad, here, be free. Then scientists descend on the block and evict everyone while they analyze every scrap of alien DNA they can find.

The vaguely plausible best case scenario: Tia (the sensible girl who points out that all of Moses’s actions have consequences, and he needs to learn to think!) and Sam (the nurse) make enough stink that Moses is jailed only for juvenile charges and not for all the bodies lying around. Survey says? Not likely.

If the alien dogs don’t catch you, the cops will.

It’s hard to tell in this world how antagonistic the police really are: Moses’s group considers them the enemy, and claims they lock them up for everything and anything, yet… they’re still roaming free. The only actual police interaction we see comes in three places:

  1. Where they’re arresting Moses for the mugging he committed and get eaten by aliens.
  2. Where armored police are threatening two nine-year-olds who’ve just set an alien on fire with a water gun full of gasoline and some fireworks (these are some freaking feral kids in this block, let me tell you).
  3. When they’re arresting pretty much anyone they can find after the alien attack, heedless of what Sam is saying.

Horror brings out the pessimist in me. I assume the police are going to look at the aliens — find them incomprehensible — then look at Moses and the bodies spread from lobby to penthouse, and throw away the key.

Attack the Block is a good movie, but it wasn’t the cheerful, violent romp I wanted/expected. I’m still glad I saw it.

All screencaps from blushots.weebly.com

3 Comments

  • J.L. Gribble September 6, 2017 at 8:04 am

    I did see this right when it came out, but I’ll definitely have to give it a rewatch. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

    Reply
  • Ron Edison September 6, 2017 at 12:25 pm

    This came out of nowhere for us–I forgot how we first heard about it, but not in theatrical release. We got the DVD from Netflix back when we were getting physical disks mailed to us. I can see how current/recent politics would color your perceptions. That wasn’t the intention at the time, but it’s definitely a side effect that is filtering our perspectives on a broad spectrum. We pretty much liked the movie IIR, and I don’t recall the FX being disappointing, but then we did live through the Baker/Pertwee era of Dr. Who and they were better than that.

    Reply
    • Lane Robins September 6, 2017 at 3:09 pm

      It was a really strange experience watching it, because I could definitely see the movie it would have been for me if I’d watched it years ago. I think I would have loved it pretty much uncomplicatedly. I thought the special effects held up really well! I loved their scary, glowing teeth dog things and found them convincing. They moved really well.

      Reply

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