Movie Discussion: Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block (2011)

  • Monthly Theme: Alien Invasions
  • The Film: Attach the Block
  • Country of origin: U.K.
  • Date of U.K. release: May 13 2011
  • Date of U.S. release: July 29, 2011
  • Studio: StudioCanal, Film4, et al.
  • Distributer: Screen Gems
  • Domestic Gross: $1 million
  • Budget: $13 million (estimated)
  • Director: Joe Cornish
  • Producers: Edgar Wright, et al.
  • Screenwriter: Joe Cornish
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematography: Tom Townend
  • Make-Up/FX: Sam Conway, Paul Hyett, et al.
  • Music: Steven Price
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: Yes. British actors Jodie Whittaker and Luke Treadaway. Shaun of the Dead‘s Nick Frost.
  • Awards?: Best First Film and Best Score at the 2011 Austin Film Critics Association. Best Actor [John Boyega] and Best Foreign Film at the 2012 Black Reel Awards. Best FX at the 2012 Fangoria Chainsaw Awards. Audience Award at the 2011 Fantasia Film Festival. Best Feature at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival. Best Directorial Debut at the 2011 New York Film Critics Online Awards and the 2012 Toronto Film Critics Association Awards. Midnight Feature Award at the 2011 SxSW Film Festival. 3 awards at the 2011 Sitges-Catalonian International Film Festival. Special Mention at the 2011 Torino International Festival of Young Cinema.
  • Tagline: “Inner city vs. outer space.”
  • The Lowdown: An invasion of alien beasts from outer space forces a group of inner city kids in a South London council estate to defend their community. Will they be able to repel the monsters from beyond?

If you haven’t seen Attack the Block our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Kristine: Hey there, Mayhem. This is Probs.

Sean: Allow it.

Kristine: Trust.

Sean: So can I just say? I cannot imagine a world in which you didn’t love this. Is it true?

Kristine: I loved most of it, but I didn’t love everything.

Sean: Can I ask some things?

The kids in E.T. -> The Goonies -> These kids

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: This movie is the 21st-c. Goonies. Yea or nay?

Kristine: Yea, definitely. That is in my notes.

Sean: Moses is one of the greatest movie protagonists of all time. Yea or nay?

Kristine: Yes. John Boyega is incredibly charismatic. I was very impressed with him. He makes even the parts I didn’t love, like the ending, almost work. He needs to be a huge star.

Sean: Holy shit. My next question was going to be: This movie has the greatest ending of any pop movie ever. Yea or nay? But you just answered it.

Kristine: I didn’t love the ending.

Sean: The fucking crowd chanting Moses’ name?! And he finally smiles? It’s the best !!!!!

Dead penis

Kristine: Yes, the very last scene is good, with Moses hearing the crowd chant his name. His smile made my heart sing. But the overall ending didn’t quite work for me. I didn’t mind Moses becoming a super action movie star for the ending (and I actually loved the samurai sword stuff) but I hated him strapping the female alien corpse to his back. Every time I saw the dead alien female I was so upset. The movie being bookended by her body being abused was terrible and I couldn’t get into it. I also wasn’t wild about Moses clinging to the Union Jack flag to avoid falling to his death after the explosion. I was rolling my eyes pretty hard. I get that those are classic tropes of action movies, but it didn’t really work in Attack the Block. I thought the movie was more effective when it showed the kids attempting to pull off superhero tactics and failing.

Sean: I suppose. But there are moments scattered throughout of the kids being action heroes – like Biggz finally making his leap on the staircase…

Kristine: Sure, but the movie still showed them being clumsy and sort of stumbling their way through the action scenes, which I appreciated more. I understand that not all movies need to be subtle and that’s fine. I mostly liked how the movie presented the aliens as metaphors for the police and blurred the lines between those two groups. They’re both hostile forces invading The Ends, and they’re both antagonists from the perspective of Moses and his crew. However, some of those sociocultural critique moments got played a little too hard, like at the end when Biggz is yelling “Why are you always arresting the wrong people?” at the cops as they’re hauling Moses away in handcuffs. There was too much “telling” rather than “showing.” Like I said, Moses is so amazing that it almost doesn’t matter, but I would have made some changes to the script.

The kidz have arrived

Sean: Interesting. I guess, for me, this is such a perfect pop artifact… I wouldn’t challenge any of your issues with the movie. I’d just say that they weren’t issues for me. As far as the female alien’s body as a plot device, I think you just have to go with it. It could have easily been switched to be that he was the male and the others were females, or it was a baby and the others were mothers, or whatever. The monsters work as just metaphors and vehicles for pop action for me.

Kristine: I wasn’t upset because it was female. You’re absolutely right that it could have been the male or the baby. It was the ritualistic abuse and parading of the corpse through the streets that shook me up, because it echoed countless real-life war crimes. I am certain that parallel was intentional. I hated the beginning when Moses and crew hunt her down and trap her and you hear her squealing in pain. I was like, ‘Here we go again, I am so on Team Alien.’ Actually, even though I ended up loving Moses and the crew and didn’t want them to die, I kind of was on Team Alien throughout. Bringing out the female body again at the end brought back all those bad feelings, though I understand that it worked, plot-wise.

Sean: I would also suggest some minor tweaks to the script, but only as fan service. I would give Brewis (who I have a hard crush on) at least one scene where he gets to fight a monster. Just one little action moment for Brewis. I would also give Nia and Dimples and that crew a bit more to do. But that’s all I think…

From least hot to most

Kristine: I knew it. I totally called that you would crush out on Brewis. He was hilarious and great, and I agree it would have been good if he had gotten some combat scenes. I’m glad you brought up the ladies because their fight scene was one of my favorite moments. I just want to add that “Turn Down for What” is so the 2014 anthem of these kids. I want to be at house dance party with them and that’s all that plays.

Sean: First, let me ask you this. The movie begins with Samantha as the P.O.V. character and when the meteor crashes during the mugging, the movie asks us to assume that Moses and his gang will play the role that all black muggers in horror/action movies have played since time immemorial: that they’ll be the ones to get killed by the villain first, to establish the threat, and then the movie will continue on with Samantha as the main character… Did the movie trick you? Did you think that Moses and the muggers would turn into the main characters?

Kristine: It did trick me. I thought that Moses would be the character Hi-Hatz ended up being. And I was like, ‘Here we go again with the racist, menacing black Other.’

Spin-off? Please?

Sean: I mean, that’s a pretty great trick, no?

Kristine: For sure. Who is your favorite member of the crew?

Sean: My favorite character is Dimples. My favorite boy gang member is Moses. Biggz (the kid with the afro who spends most of the movie in the dumpster) is also loveable. Pest is hilarious: “You got a pottymouth, man.”

Kristine: What about poor Jerome? I loved him and his hipster Jay-Z black frames.

Sean: He was whatevs for me. He reminded me of Roger from What’s Happening!! with the glasses. I liked Young Den more, the angry one whose head gets popped off.

Kristine: I j’adored Jerome.

Sean: Jerome is the least best one, sorry.

“Where’s Rerun?”

Kristine: So, Dimples and Nia teaming up to take on the creature in the bedroom was one of the best scenes and a turning point in the movie, where I went from enjoying it to really digging it. A case of where ladies existing within a domestic space (fighting inside the flat instead of on the streets) really worked. I loved them defeating the aliens with an ice skate and floor lamp in the girliest bedroom ever.

Sean: “I don’t want no chlamydia.”

Kristine: Until that scene, I had issues with the creature design. I truly didn’t find the gorillas with glow-in-the-dark teeth to be scary at all. But after the fight in Nia’s flat, they suddenly became scary. I can’t explain it. The next best alien combat scene was the smoke corridor/elevator segment. Well, “best” except that my Jerome dies.

Sean: There’s lots of great little action setpieces. This movie does so much with so little.

Kristine: I agree. I also loved the shot of Hi-Hatz framed by the windows, when the glowing aliens suddenly swarm behind.

Sean: His gory death was pretty awesome. I actually felt really bad for his driver, the guy who complimented Moses’ “mad puppet skills.”

Cute nose job

Kristine: Yeah. What did you think of Moses’ Kanye moment?

Sean: When he gives his speech?

Kristine: Yes. He says:

I reckon the Feds sent [the aliens] anyway. Government probably bred those creatures to kill black boys. First they sent drugs to the Ends, then they sent guns, now they sent monsters to get us. They don’t care, man. We ain’t killing each other fast enough so they decided to speed up the process.

Sean: It’s an epic moment.

Kristine: I agree. But why is it so epic? Is it just because we so rarely get to see a character like Moses just express that idea in our pop culture?

Sean: I mean, there’s The Wire and then there’s… Where in the tv/movie landscape right now do we even get to see a character like Moses or see the world from his perspective? Obviously, we have hip-hop (thank God). But I can’t think of any other Moseses on tv or in movies of the past few years.

Kristine: Right. We talked about post-‘70s-style paranoia last time with The Thing, but Moses is giving voice to a whole different kind of paranoia here. One that’s positioned by his class and his race.

An embarrassing bathroom incident

Sean: Exactly, and that’s why I also think its so interesting to think about this movie as the current moment’s answer to The Goonies. Because if Moses is the 2010s version of Mikey, then we can see so much about how Western culture has shifted in the last 30 years. Mikey’s anxiety in The Goonies is about his suburban existence being threatened, and the hermetically sealed safe space of his middle-class whiteness coming under attack (ironically, also by some version of The Man, embodied in The Goonies by the development company that plans of tearing down the Goon Docks to make way for new real estate ventures rather than the cops in Attack the Block). So what a great counterpoint to consider Moses as the new Mikey, and his problems are a “new” set of problems – the problem of institutionalized racism, of the ghettoization of poor/lower class communities, the problem of broken families and a dysfunctional home life. The Goonies ends with all the kids safe, literally wrapped in warm blankies by their parents and the police, who arrive as forces of Law and Order to arrest the Fratellis and reassure the kids that the world has gone back to normal. Plus, there’s a gigantic monetary reward – the treasure. The kids in The Goonies end their adventure wealthy, safe, returned to an idyllic suburbia run by comforting pairs of non-divorced parents. Attack the Block ends with Moses and Pest in handcuffs, but with the crowd chanting Moses’ name. He’s the outlaw hero – still poor, still parentless, still a black kid in a society that criminalizes blackness. But he’s become a man and a folk hero. And, best of all, he’s learned a lesson about the importance of his community. As Nia told him earlier, “Actions have consequences, you know. Everywhere you go, bad things happen.” And Moses has reversed that – he did something selfless, and he took responsibility for the movie’s opening act of arbitrary violence (killing the alien because it’s there). One of the key contrasts here is that the suburban kids of The Goonies get to have their childhood protected and extended; the kids of Attack the Block are forced to grow up too fast, to become men when they’re still just boys (and should be allowed to continue to be boys). But there’s a dignity and honor that Moses earns through his adventure that Mikey and his friends don’t possess.

Hero of the People

Kristine: That’s why the character of Brewis is in the movie – to contrast a very familiar suburban white privilege with the circumstances of Moses and his friends. How Brewis brags about getting “busted” – implying he was arrested – but he really just means that his parents caught him with pot and took away his allowance. He’s a holdover from The Goonies. He’s a version of Mikey at 19 years old.

Sean: Totally. Though Brewis does end up in handcuffs at the end of the movie, along with Moses and Pest.

Kristine: Yes, and his reaction is one of righteous indignation – “I’m a member of Amnesty!” – rather than Moses’ stoic acceptance. Moses is used to grave injustices. Brewis isn’t.

Sean: What’d about the character of Samantha? How does she fit into the movie as a whole?

Kristine: She didn’t bother me, but she makes absolutely no impression either. She is just there, like Brewis, to contrast the way she is treated by the world with how Moses and his friends are treated by the world. That being said, I’m glad she got to be proactive and not just a helpless lady. There were zero helpless ladies in the film, which is amazing.

Sean: Yes, on the one hand, Samantha might as well be named Whitey G. Privilege because of the role her character plays in the movie’s viewpoint on race and class. But I also think there’s more to her than just that. I was especially aware of the gender dynamics between herself and Moses’ crew, from the opening mugging in which Moses and his friends have all the power, to how she is ‘forced’ into a nurse role via Pest’s injury. I do think the movie also comments on the way Samantha is herself susceptible to some things that Moses and his friends are not, most notably in the dynamics between them during the mugging.

She was the mom in Broadchurch. Weird.

Kristine: Sure, but the movie is careful to point out that the boys aren’t these violent male thugs, but just kids reacting to their environment. When the subject of the mugging comes up later, Jerome tells Samantha, “The blade was to get it over with quick. We was as scared as you.”

Sean: Yes, that’s a great moment. They’re all just people making choices – some of them bad, some of them good. The movie doesn’t judge them for that (though it’s much harsher with Brewis and Hi-Hatz). I appreciated how the alien invasion really just acts a platform on which to think about how the idea of the ‘monster’ is really this social construction that exists in order to make the people you fear into the Other. Remember, the elderly woman who helps Samantha at the beginning of the movie talks about Moses’ crew in dehumanizing terms: “Walking around with knives, great big dogs like they own the block. Excuse my French but they’re fucking monsters, isn’t they?” They’re not people; they’re dogs, they’re monsters.

Kristine: True.

Sean: And Samantha agrees with her, saying, “Yeah, fucking monsters.” Samantha is really meant to be the proxy for white audiences, and her arc of realizing and coming to terms with Moses’ humanity is the movie’s message to those white audiences. Those black kids you think you’re afraid of? They’re just people, they’re just scared kids.

Kristine: But I really like that the movie doesn’t trivialize Samantha’s fear (in the first third of the movie) or lampoon her sense of endangerment. She is every woman who has ever walked alone at night and had to pass by a group of strange men on the street. Her anger at Moses’ crew is justified, and the movie acknowledges that. There is a ‘monstrous’ component to the act of a group of men cornering a lone woman and threatening her with violence. I like how the movie just lets it be complicated and everyone’s a little clueless and everyone’s a little sympathetic.

Sean: Yeah, and the one group that never gets that humanizing moment is the police. At the end, one of the boys asks, “Is that more of the monsters?” and another replies, “Sort of…” – they’re talking about the arrival of the police. And the movie is sympathetic with how Moses and Biggz and the rest of them see the police, not as people, but as monsters coming in to harass and stalk them.

Kristine: Like that moment when Mayhem & Probs roast the alien that has trapped Biggz in the dumpster and then immediately are confronted by the coppers and run away from them, terrified. A hairy gorillamonster? No problem. The police? Holy shit, run!

Sean: How great is the moment when Young Den is looking at the color of the monster’s fur and is like, “That’s the blackest black! Blacker than my cousin Femi!”?

Screen Shot 2014-06-25 at 9.43.34 AM
Kid ‘n We Don’t Play

Kristine: Yeah that felt like a very clever way to let some of the racial tensions out of the movie. It’s a historical fact that white culture has often portrayed black people as animals, gorillas, beasts, etc. And the movie gets to laugh at that or make fun of it, letting us know that its aware of that history. But it’s also just a great (and authentic) character beat for Young Den.

Sean: Young Den is wonderful, and also the most hostile and angry towards Samantha. I really love the exchange between them when they’re discussing the mugging and Samantha makes a wry remark about not liking the area (because of the danger posed to her by people like Moses’ crew) and Young Den gets really offended and it like, “What do you mean ‘don’t like the area’? What’s wrong with the area?” The way the kids relate to their turf, and take a lot of pride in where they’re from, is one of my favorite things about the movie. The whole idea being, the police sure as hell aren’t going to protect this community from monsters. They only arrive to arrest the kids (twice, actually) – never to protect any of the residents. So the kids are sure as hell going to do the protecting, then.

Kristine: Which circles us back around to the mugging. Moses’ apology to Samantha is when he tells her that if he’d known she lived in the council estate, they never would have mugged her. That is a really important moment. The most divisive force right then is social class, more than race, gender or anything else. The Us vs. Them that really matters is the people who live on the block vs. everyone who doesn’t. That old lady might think Moses is a dog and a monster (so again, the aliens are a kind of white racist fantasy of blackness come to life), but she is being protected by him, whether she realizes it or not. They’re a part of the same community.

Sean: Yeah.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Pop perfection AND The kids are all right.

The Freak’s Rating: I would have loved this movie in high school AND Masterpiece! AND Pop perfection AND Race matters

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