Sunday, 29 May 2011

Film Review - Attack the Block

tl;dr review: Attack the Block is an amusing film with well paced action, intricate plotting, well-rounded characters, cool concepts, great lighting and cinematography and a strong social message, yet it remains something of a failure. This is a movie that is never quite sure as to what it is, being neither a horror nor a comedy, but if you can look past the tonal ambiguity then you'll find an entertaining movie that is both smart and subtle.


Attack the Block opens up to a scene that espouses normal comic fare to rather an extreme degree: a young woman is robbed by a gang of bandana masked teenagers on the streets of London. It's perhaps too courageous a start, chopping away empathy we may have had for the main characters. From the outset it is obvious that this is the movie's intention, and over the course of the movie these characters will become more rounded and we will be able to see why they do what they do and come to understand them in a different light. This is a tricky story to tell, and one not particularly important to either the horror or the comedy side of things.

The armed robbery is interrupted, however, when a strange dark hairy creature with glowing teeth crashes into a car nearby. The lead mugger, Moses, and gang give chase, cornering it and killing it before dragging it's carcass around town in order to show it off and find away to get rid of it. None of them can identify it, and far too readily do they accept the idea of it being an alien. Really, this doesn't hurt the movie: we know its an alien, and to have the characters draw that question out would just be annoying. Before long the teenagers are back on the street, having witnessed more alien landings, in an attempt to hunt them down.

Attack the Block offers a number of horror and action set pieces that are memorable and striking, yet take it away from it's supposed comedy foundation. Fireworks are used to great effect in  particularly visually effective sequences, as the beleagured team try to escape through corridors of the tower blocks. We get a well paced and impressive chase sequence and a moped samurai charge into fireworks. All of these certainly worthy moments for a sci-fi/horror, but they do leave the comedy at the door. Sure, humour can be drawn from the absurdity of the scenarios (especially the last one I listed), but there are no real jokes. It's not long before it becomes clear that watching Attack the Block as a comedy does not really work.

That's not to say that when the comedy does come along, it isn't effective. Luke Treadaway as the posh-boy stoner, particularly, adds a great amount of levity to the various situations the hapless gang find themselves in. Whilst it is very much a funny film at times, the comedy takes the backseat here. Nonetheless, the film is played off in much the same manner as films such as Shaun of the Dead, leading to rather bad tonal disparity.

It's definitely not scary though. The aliens are potential very scary, but the fact that our first encounter with one of them leads to the main characters killing it rather diminishes any fear you may have felt for the characters. Coupled with the way they start off in such a negative manner, you'll never really feel scared for them even if the danger feels genuine. For horror to work the focal point has to be the weakest one, and although this is the case, the team are resourceful enough to kill a few without a death so this never really feels the case.

Nonetheless, this is an intricately plotted story. A car is destroyed at the start, and then a few scenes later when we first are introduced to Treadaway's character he mumbles soemthing about "getting it home safely". Later, we see him hit the unlock mechanism on a set of keys, prompting the broken car to click open. It's little moments like these that really make Attack the Block worth watching, subtle lines and scenes with great pay-offs both on the dramatic and comedic sides of things.

The characters are larger than life and cartoonish, which throws the tone into even more confusion. The people who populate this world feel reasonably well developed, especially for a movie that at times threatens to be an ensemble cast. Each of the characters feels distinctive, and more than just single note. The acting, too, is strong, although I found John Boyega rather too stoned faced as the leading man. Rather than being compelling and brooding, he just came off as too distant.

On the visual and directorial side of things, Joe Cornish shows very much a steady hand on his debut. The cinematographyis very nice, and the whole piece feels stylised without being distracting. It's a polished product, and certainly feels like it has been guided by a practised hand.

Really, the thing about this movie that makes the biggest impression is the tonal ambiguity. A shame, really, since under that is a very good movie. Personally, I think it is best watched as a sci-fi action film with strong comic relief, as it is clever and well structured and very much an enjoyable romp.

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