This review contains **SPOILERS**
Writer/director Joe Cornish gives himself a nearly impossible task with opening Attack the Block the way that he does: five youths mug a lone woman, Sam, pulling a switchblade knife on her, among other weapons, threaten her, knock her on the ground and force her to remove her ring. It’s a scary scene and you’re never quite sure how the leader, Moses, is really going to play it. He seemed to genuinely want to hurt her by the end. She perhaps only escapes because an Unidentified Flying Objects crashes into a car beside them, distracting her attackers. It’s a hell of a scene to build sympathetic characters from. Unfortunately, Cornish doesn’t really try.
The UFO turns out to contain a relatively harmless alien life form, which the boys track down and beat to death for fun. These are their first two actions in the film: a threat of gang violence against a woman, and killing and parading the body of an unknown creature. The hole was dug so deep for me that I felt next to nothing when the real action began. The alien was, in fact, a female, and its death triggered an invasion of its species, aptly described by one of the boys as “gorilla-wolf-motherfuckers.” They wipe out two cops arresting Moses, who manages to escape in the paddy wagon, and go on to kill pretty much anyone in contact with him. The cops were the only victims I felt anything for, as they were only doing their jobs and were killed out of nowhere. Everyone else in the line of the massacre was a predator in his own right, from any of the gang of boys to Hi-Hatz, a violent drug dealer who immediately turns on Moses because movies like this need a human antagonist as well as an otherworldly one. Once he understands the alien threat, there’s no genuine reason for Hi-Hatz to maintain his grudge with Moses. He just does until he can get his.
Improbably, just as Sam is letting herself back into her apartment, the gang comes out of the elevator and forces their way inside, as if they hadn’t terrorized her enough. They’re just looking for a place to hide, though, and a scene for Sam to show off her nursing skills on one of the injured boys. We go on to learn a few rudimentary facts about Moses after this, like that he is 15, lives with his uncle (which I think was supposed to explain his violent tendencies, but I couldn’t say how), and that you should feel sorry for him because he sleeps in a Spider-Man sleeping bag. I think that was the logic of the movie, because as soon as she learns that he is 15, Sam immediately develops sympathy for her mugger. It’s all too haphazard to generate any real feeling and mostly serves to detract from the film’s real stars, the alien horde.
Giant balls of fur and luminous fangs and eyes, they never seem like they could have found their way to Earth from outer space. But that’s not their point. They’re mindless killing machines, and in that regard, they do pretty well. They suffer from a movie monster’s ability to attack precisely only when the movie calls for it. Some moments they strike viciously and efficiently, smearing someone into paste. Other times, they allow a child to get past them inexplicably. It’s an uneven handling of their threat, but it provides one of the film’s best visuals in Hi-Hatz exiting an elevator filled with dead aliens, absolutely dripping with blood. You get a real sense of his menace from that one image.
Cornish has a great eye for these kinds of shots. As I mentioned, he develops a world of violence in “the Block” early, so much so that crashing meteors barely even affect its citizens beyond curiosity about what’s dropping on them. It permeates their entire existence as portrayed here. Nothing exists in this world but predators and prey, the latter proving to be largely female. It’s a very casual and disturbing attitude presented in the film, because one stoner character presents as easily as suitable target as Sam, and exhibits more fear than she, yet he is never accosted in any way. I know this is supposed to be a fun summer action film, but this hampered my enjoyment of it greatly. The emergence of Moses as the hero never sat well with me either. His turn from thug to savior feels forced and I didn’t believe it.
That’s not to say that I found it unenjoyable. It’s visually stunning, especially when the aliens hit Earth with their whatever-carries-them-here. They light up the sky and careen into the planet with amazing impact. The damage they render is palpable. The question of how these ravenous furballs managed to pilot a spacecraft really never occurred to me until after I’d finished the film, and by then I didn’t care. Their attacks on people are fantastically realized, too. They come from nowhere and leave only smears of blood and shredded clothes. With characters I cared about, these things would have been terrorizing. As it stands, I was rooting for the monsters.
In spite of any negativity, I look forward to more of Cornish’s work. I think he did a great job with this film. It looks amazing and it feels naturally gritty, I just wanted someone besides a victim to root for. I wanted someone to really strive to be a hero, rather than just look after himself until the very last minute. 3 stars