Attack The Block at 10 – Joe Cornish’s unique alien-invasion actioner

Attack The Block
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There’s a sequel on the way, but 10 years on, Joe Cornish’s “inner city vs outer space” sci-fi film Attack The Block is like nothing else we’ve seen in British cinema.

This feature contains spoilers for Attack The Block.

Set on the fictional Wyndham Tower estate in South London, Attack The Block begins with a gang of young delinquents mugging trainee nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) at knifepoint on the night of 5th November, until a meteorite crash interrupts them.

After the gang’s leader, Moses, (John Boyega) kills a small alien creature they find, he inadvertently draws the much larger creatures to their block. Arming themselves, the gang tool up with whatever they have to hand to protect themselves and the other residents of the estate from monsters best described as “big alien gorilla wolf motherfuckers”.

Writer-director Joe Cornish has often spoken of his two main inspirations for Attack The Block – the first was being mugged by a gang of youths in South London, much as Whittaker’s Sam is at the beginning of the film, and the second was watching M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs and wondering how that film’s alien crisis would have looked in South London, where he grew up.

These ideas both power the film’s exhilarating mix of genres and social commentary, which interweave throughout the action. Although the film arrived in cinemas in April 2011, it’s a rare movie set on Bonfire Night, so now seems as good a time as any to mark its 10th anniversary and ponder where the recently announced sequel might go…


Inner city

By the late 2000s, it became commonplace for youths who lived on council estates to be portrayed as monsters by the mainstream press. Prime minister Tony Blair was a vocal supporter of anti-hoodie dress codes being imposed in certain venues, while then-opposition-leader David Cameron was widely mocked by opposition members and pundits at one point for the 2006 “compassionate conservatism” speech that was wrongly attributed as “hug a hoodie”.

In 2021, with the past decade of austerity in mind, it’s not the suggestion of empathy that seems absurd. Indeed, it’s embarrassing in retrospect that Labour government ministers joined in with mocking the notion to affirm its own “tough on crime” credentials, overlooking the systematic inequalities and cultural divides that Cameron and successive Conservative premierships would go on to exacerbate.

One of the big arts and media decisions that Cameron oversaw was the abolition of the UK Film Council, making Attack The Block one of the last films it backed. Then again, at the time, the movies weren’t much friendlier to impoverished young people either. British films like Eden Lake, Cherry Tree Lane, and Harry Brown all monstered teenagers to one degree or another.

In making Attack The Block, Cornish aspired to buck the prevailing trend of “hoodie horror”. His extensive preparation for writing and rewriting the film involved talking to young people from estates, asking what they’d do if they were in the situation seen in the film, and including their slang. Aside from Boyega, (who had some experience as a stage actor when he was offered the role of Moses. but makes his screen debut) the young cast was found through auditions in drama classes at London schools.

Meanwhile, Luke Treadaway’s Brewis (a posh university student who stumbles into the block to score some weed from Ron and winds up very much out of his depth) is the character who Cornish thinks is most like himself. That kind of self-awareness is valuable on a film that strives for authentic representation even in its genre context.

Above all, there’s empathy. Cornish introduces the kids by showing them violently mugging an unarmed woman, a deliberately provocative start for which he doesn’t let them off the hook at any point during the film. Sam rightly skewers their stumbling apologies because they’re based on the idea of loyalty to the block rather than actual remorse for scaring her.

But then your heart breaks for the kids when they voice their belief that the government has sent monsters in to kill them off before the drugs and the guns can. It’s almost scoffed away in the moment, but that beat is all the more striking upon repeat viewings, with the later knowledge of Sam discovering from Moses’ bedroom that these are the fears of a 15-year-old boy, already expecting nothing from the world but what he can manage to scrape for himself.

Still, the arc of the film bends towards the responsibility we have to each other, whether it’s in the gang getting to know Sam through their shared ordeal or Moses accepting the consequences of his actions in killing the original female alien and then risking his life to save everyone else.

If it were only this, a compassionate portrayal of a demonised demographic with a strong moral and thematic core and social conscience, it would be a worthier endeavour than most British films of the last decade or two.

But as we mentioned, it’s got amazing action scenes and those pesky “big alien gorilla wolf motherfuckers” too.


Outer space


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Of all the John Carpenter influences that are attributed to Attack The Block, it’s 1976’s Assault On Precinct 13 that rings most true. Carpenter’s low-budget thriller sees prisoners fighting alongside cops to fend off the worse threat attacking a police precinct, and although the authorities don’t figure in the equation here, Cornish’s film similarly has to make a lot out of not much.

For starters, the first-time director had to cut 15 pages out of the script before shooting in order to bring the film in on budget. Another fix was the early shot of a Wyndham Estate map, (the street names are similarly named after British sci-fi authors) providing a sense of geography for a fictional neighbourhood that was made of several real-life locations – they couldn’t afford a digital aerial shot to establish the estate as other, bigger productions would.

What’s more impressive is that Attack The Block is an £8 million film that still looks better than most £80m+ blockbusters. There’s a tactile simplicity to the film’s “blackest black ever” alien design that’s both iconic and not too demanding on the visual-effects budget – numerous inspirations have been cited for this look, including the Space Invaders arcade cabinet, the Ringwraiths from The Lord Of The Rings, and the wolf that young Leonidas fights in 300, but altogether it still looks entirely unique.

Combined with Tom Townend’s cinematography, the effects and design serve to maximise the film’s production value. Cornish’s objective was to situate sci-fi cinema somewhere you don’t expect to find it, but we can’t think of another British science fiction film in recent years that has made a low budget go this far. It could cost a few million more or less and still have that sharp script and canny casting, but the look of the film, especially in its action scenes, is one of the most distinctive things about it.

Attack The Block was not marketed spectacularly well during its cinema rollout – although Edgar Wright lending his name to the film undoubtedly helped get it made, it was done no favours by the “From the producers of Shaun Of The Dead” tagline that suggested comical Cornetto stylings. It wasn’t a big hit, but thanks to huge acclaim and word-of-mouth, it became an instant cult classic. It’s telling that this is especially true in the US, where cultural, societal, and racial divides are not only recognisable but deeper still.

And so, the film’s reputation has grown over time and, after years of rumours, Cornish and Boyega took the opportunity to announce a sequel was officially in development earlier this year, to coincide with its 10th anniversary.

Boyega is now involved as an executive producer as well as starring as Moses, and he said: “It’s been a decade since Attack the Block was released and so much has changed since then. I’m excited to see this heightened story return to the streets of London. Moses has remained one of my favourite characters to play and bringing him back is a huge honour.”

Read more: Attack The Block 2 announced, John Boyega and Joe Cornish returning 

It’s often remarked that the cast have gone onto bigger things, largely in reference to Boyega in Star Wars and Whittaker in Doctor Who. Both are better known sci-fi properties, certainly, but it would be hard to characterise either of them as bigger than this in thought – despite incessant whinging about political correctness (gasp!) in some quarters, both the Star Wars sequel trilogy and the Thirteenth Doctor’s era have both become more inward-looking as they’ve gone on.

By contrast, Attack The Block makes a lot of not much at all, looking out from its small locale with equal parts ambition and empathy. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have had that extra decade of social injustice to inspire a sequel, but even so, we’re unabashedly looking forward to whatever Cornish and Boyega have got in store for us next.

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