To everyone from the UK, Joe Cornish is known primarily as a comedian. His long, productive and frequently hilarious partnership with hirsute colleague Adam Buxton has incorporated everything from weekly radio shows to stand up to late-night sketch comedy shows on TV.
So to learn that the London-born funnyman has turned his hand to film direction is something of a surprise to a British audience. Learning the layout of his début feature only enhances the intrigue.
Set in the confines of a south London council estate (note for non-Brits: these are government-funded residential areas, usually populated entirely by apartments, akin to US housing projects) Cornish’s horror-comedy-sci-fi centres on a group of local adolescents who spend their spare time riding around on bikes and mugging people. One night, after robbing local nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker), something falls from the sky and explodes into a nearby car. It’s a creature, and it attacks the group’s leader Moses (John Boyega) and flees. These kids not being the types to taking a beating laying down, they chase it and kill it. Turns out it’s an alien, and that its compatriots are inbound to wreak revenge, so Sam and her assailants must form an unlikely partnership in order to stay alive…
Aficionados will no doubt see, instantly, the influence of John Carpenter on this movie. A small cast, trapped in a single location and pursued by an unknown threat (The Thing) in shadowy halls and dark corridors (Halloween) through a battered high-rise location filled with bizarre characters (Escape From New York).
Indeed, this movie does seem in many ways to be an homage to the great director, but while it pays tribute to him – and other directors of the late 70s/early 80s who made similar pictures – it’s by no means a by-the-numbers hack job. The central ideas may be pieced together from a series of other movies, but the product itself is unique.
Of course, any film starring ‘kids’ (Hollywood definition: anyone under the age of 18 unless they’re Dakota Fanning, Chloe Moretz or Hayley Joel Osment) can be a disaster in the opening reel if they’re annoying. However, Cornish has assembled a group of bolshy young actors to fill his roles and they’re excellent value; the script (which Cornish penned) is awash with south London vernacular and profanity which they dish out with great relish. Boyega’s Moses, ostensibly our hero, is seemingly impassive but troubled, and Alex Esmail’s Pest is a memorably enthusiastic, drug-loving motormouth.
The threat, too, is wittily played by Cornish. The creatures themselves may sometimes lack visual oomph – in the main they’re fluid black apelike masses with glowing teeth and that’s about it – due to budget constraints (the movie’s £8m budget would barely cover Michael Bay’s sock drawer) but the it’s cunningly concealed, by a combination of exceptional camera trickery by Cornish, a combination of worms-eye angled glances and kinetic fight sequences, and the excellent make-up and prosthetics work done on the original beastie.
However, what really makes Cornish’s début so interesting are the undercurrents. The film’s central thread is a bit trite (his wilfully throwback style means this is part and parcel of the product) but the bubbling subtexts are biting. The home lives of the kids themselves are brilliantly unveiled as they run into their various flats to retrieve self-defence weapons, some raised by poor parents and others not raised at all, and all the action goes unnoticed to the outside world, people putting the estate out of sight and out of mind; the events are incredible, yet such is the ostracism of these areas that everyone puts them down to local ne’er-do-wells with fireworks. Similarly, the kids’ questionable code is also unpacked, as they explain to Sam: “the knife was there to make it go quicker… We never would’ve robbed you if we knew you lived here”. This poignant social commentary is knowingly underplayed – partly to focus on the thrills and spills and partly because council-estate family dramas are now mundanely commonplace in the UK film market – but it hits home regardless: the revelation about how Moses lives is truly heartbreaking.
Things do get wrapped up a bit too smoothly and a bit too quickly, but thanks to the at-times hilarious script, a handful of excellent supporting turns (Nick Frost’s drug dealer Ron and Jumayn Hunter’s local gangster Hi-Hatz especially) and clever, fresh direction from Cornish, Attack The Block seldom feels hurried and is never dull. It’s retro, no two ways about it, but by sprinkling in some poignant backstory and enough local slang and swearing to make Guy Ritchie consult a thesaurus, it’s a brilliant and above all fun slice of cinema. And that’s a rare thing these days.
Verdict: The lazy comparisons to Shaun of the Dead have some basis in reality, but Cornish’s film is less about family ties and more about friendship amidst societal ills. Much cleverer than you think it is, featuring some genuinely unsettling, but never overused, gore, and a cluster of very strong, believable central performances, ATB might not always wow you, but it’s got shocks and laughs to spare.