Thursday, June 16, 2011

Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011)

Wyndham Tower looms over a London slum like a fortress, or a prison. Long corridors mark off equally spaced, nondescript doors, some of which (on the higher levels) are barred. It breeds a tough kind of people, so tough that, when an alien crashes into the area, a group of youths quickly kill it and proudly parade the creature about the place as if it were the boar's head in Lord of the Flies. Then more creatures rain from the sky. Stronger, scarier ones.

Attack the Block is the first feature of Joe Cornish, a comedian indirectly known to nerds for his work on featurettes for the home video releases of Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Cornish's chamber horror takes several cues from the former film, not only in its breakneck style and banal British setting but in its social cleverness. By limiting the action to a council estate and writing in British street slang, Cornish brings up racial and class divisions in the inner city, focusing specifically on how those division shape youths.

The gang of chavs wandering around the block at night looking for women to mug feel empowered by their threatening displays, sad though they are to any outside observer. When the leader, a 15-year-old named Moses (John Boyega), kills the crash-landed alien with a switchblade, his mates don't bother to take stock of the situation, instead thinking about what paper will give them the most money for a story about an alien. People have gotten fame and fortune for less, these days. For predominantly black kids growing up the inner city, aliens are just one more problem from the outside looking to take what little they've amassed through any means necessary.

The social commentary is further elucidated through the behavior of police, who are wholly absent in this film save when they pull guns on the block residents, ignoring the real threat to blame the poor minorities for the upheaval. Meanwhile, Moses and co. must constantly deal with the gangster and dealer Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), who arrogantly views the invasion as a disruption of his control of the block and blames the gang for bringing trouble. The sheer array of forces aligned against them is so bewildering that they eventually team up with the local nurse (Jodie Whittaker) they earlier mugged, the morality of everything around them so upturned that their childish antics become evidently meaningless even to her.

Working with a modest £8 million, Cornish necessarily cuts the waffle surrounding monster movies and crafts small-scale but springily taut comic horror film that reminded me at times of Sam Raimi's barnstorming return to form Drag Me to Hell. Far less parodic than Raimi's piss-take travesty, Cornish's film nevertheless understands that a modern audience knows all the horror tricks: when the noise cuts out, not a damn soul in the movie-going world is going to think "Oh, good, it's safe now." Like Raimi, Cornish surmises that the best solution to a wary audience is to simply bombard them with jolts, treating deadened expectations with a defibrillator.

Cornish proves a more than capable director. He gets a lot of visual mileage out of his aliens, which resemble the xenomorphs from the Alien franchise if they all hatched from gorilla hosts: jet-black fur makes them invisible in the dark, with only the neon-green glow of fang-lined mouths lighting up their eyeless heads as ear-splitting shrieks fill the air. Later, Cornish manages to completely reverse track with a beautiful, terrifyingly surreal scene in a hallway lit up and obscured by fireworks and the smoke they emit, creating a blinding fog bank that hides the creatures as well as darkest night. And during the climax, I wanted to send along a note to Zack Snyder saying, "This is how you use slo-mo."

"This is too much madness for one text!" screams one of the boys in fear and anguish as Moses tries to coordinate with his friends in the block, and his wail comes off as comic understatement in a film that crams all it can into a densely packed 88 minutes. In fairness, Attack the Block's social satire feels more like seasoning than meat, sprinkled in rather than a portion in its own right. But that's how I like my genre satire anyway, and the film is too fast-paced to stop and focus on commentary without dissipating its considerable momentum. Cornish's movie is perhaps the best of the recent crop of frantic monster movies seeking to comment on modern issues through horror, or at least the best one in the English language. Its satire is better incorporated than Cloverfield's, the monsters are thrilling, and the cast is believable and engaging. And without giving away anything, I was most amused by the suggestion that the aliens themselves aren't so different from the rage-prone, sex-crazed boys who fight them.

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