Joe Cornish’s directorial debut, Attack the Block, is an incredibly fun indie sci-fi action film, with a tight run-time that prevents it from overstaying its welcome, and a lead actor worth remembering.
Attack the Block stars John Boyega as Moses, the leader of a young group of street thugs in South London. As the film opens, Moses and his gang mug Samantha Adams (Jodie Whittaker), a young nurse who, we later find out, lives in his apartment complex.
Moses and his gang soon come across something crashing down from out of the sky: An alien, with pitch black fur and luminescent teeth (it’s a cost-effective, but thoroughly chilling, look). Though they’re able to kill the first one they come across, it’s soon followed by a whole bunch of its brood, bigger and more bloodthirsty, and they seem to want revenge. The ensuing hour or so of action is a treat to watch, as the teenagers, and Samantha, improvise different, creative ways to fight back against the aliens.
In my recent review of Night of the Living Dead (1968), I identified how rare it is to see genre films with blacks and women as leads; as it turns out, Attack the Block checks both of those boxes, much to its credit. Seeing actors of color in this kind of film isn’t just cool from a representational standpoint – it’s cool because we get to see different subcultures and ideas and tropes filter into a kind of formula film that we’ve seen time and again. Attack the Block is well-made, but story-wise it’s not different from any number of sci-fi films; it’s the specificity of the teenagers and of Samantha that makes it great. There’s a singular image in the film, of Moses, a black teen, hanging from a balcony on a Union Jack, decked out in his thuggish attire, with a katana across his back – that’s just not something you’re going to see in any other science fiction film.
John Boyega is stellar here, entirely earning his debut lead role. He’s charismatic and engrossing, communicating multiple layers of emotion at once, and simultaneously able to lead the big action beats as well. It’s easy to see why J.J. Abrams cast him for The Force Awakens – he’s a talent. Similarly, Jodie Whittaker manages to be quite convincing; at first, she authentically feels like a femme fatale, scared shitless of the teenage thugs; but as the teens and her are forced to work together to each-other, and we get to see her more bad-ass backbone, and she proves herself able on another level.
The music here, an original score by Steven Price and Basement Jaxx, is so much fun, and a perfect companion to the action here – it’s simultaneously moody and atmospheric, but grimey and underground – it’s honestly pretty good music to listen to on its own.
It’s a real shame that Joe Cornish hasn’t been able to direct any projects in the intervening years since Attack the Block; it’s a strong debut film, and it feels like Cornish should be a promising rising voice in genre film-making; this is a filmmaker who makes you want to seek out his other work, and that there is none feels like a loss.