Dear Attack the Block,
One is never sure how to approach a genre film. No offense to you and yours, but often times you have to walk in with a pretty open mind and lowered expectations when dealing with genre films, especially those that would qualify as Creature Features. In the name of witnessing creature-based mayhem, we usually have to settle for goofy characters, poor writing and acting, and a pretty substandard narrative drive.
This is why I have to say thank you, thank you so very much for delivering the creature feature staples we have come to expect – gore, tension, thrills, interesting creatures – while at the same time creating a simple yet elegant narrative, interesting characters, and humor that doesn’t come at the expense of character intellect.
The miracle of your success begins with your basic premise. Aliens have landed in and around a tenement block in London, and a local gang of teenagers has taken it upon themselves to wipe out the alien threat. It’s like a modern day Goonies mixed with Gremlins and a dash of The Wire. Somehow it works, and characters who are repellent and risible at first – they are introduced in the act of mugging a woman – become people we identify with and ultimately root for.
This happens through a combination of layered humanity and common enemy. At first this gang, led by the imposing Moses, are thuggish, violent malcontents who seem directionless and fierce. After a brief encounter with an unknown animal they track it down and beat it to death as a means of vengeance and entertainment. They proudly show off their quarry and brag about their actions. When more aliens begin to arrive, they are quick to grab more weapons from their homes and go to meet the threat, but not out of valor or a sense of duty. Instead, it is a youthful lust for violence that drives them, and that gleeful, full tilt charge into morally justifiable carnage is only tempered when it becomes clear that this next battle won’t be so easy.
It is now, when they become the underdogs and allow their gangster veneers to crack that these youths become heroes worth rooting for. Their values and personal code of honor comes to the fore. Through their fear and sudden helplessness they grow into a world of maturity, abandoning their selfishness and coming to terms with the real meaning and impact of their actions. They grow, and growth is what truly ties us to a character.
But forget all of that for a minute. Character growth is all well and good, and welcome in this genre, but this is still a creature feature, and that means one thing: creature mayhem. You create an atmosphere of dread and otherworldliness out of the every day. The city at night becomes a stark, forbidding wasteland, a land of shadows and streetlights that conceals and exposes all at once. The tenement block takes on the aesthetic of a hulking spaceship or abandoned stellar colony. Lights flicker, elevator doors stay open too long, don’t arrive fast enough. All of the tropes of a classic off-world sci-fi classic are in place, but in a new environment with new characters. A fresh sheen of paint over a familiar body can work wonders, especially if the paint is expertly applied and masterfully polished.
The best part is that all of this horror and tension is glossed by a character-based humor that is effective without coming at the cost of the effectively draw characters. The key is that these are not funny characters – they are characters who say funny things without realizing they are funny. Their obliviousness highlights, underlines, and drives home the humor of their comments. Its a stark contrast to the terror of the situation, but it works.
The only off note in your whole production is that you are too effective and too fearless. I know this may sound odd, but with a young cast of characters we grow to love, every act of violence against them becomes jarring and spell-breaking. The reality of the danger, driven home by this violence, seems out of place against the humor and energy of your otherwise flawless tone. Still, as I say, this is the reality of your movie, and you rebound from each moment of violence with aplomb and grace. In the end, this danger also allows for your climactic moment – like a scene from The Sandlot straight from hell – to gain a weight and significance it might otherwise have missed.
Add to all of these various aspects your oddly appropriate and well executed statement on the cyclical nature of violence and revenge in the inner city, and we have a genre film creature feature that rises well above most others that have come before it.
Looking forward to spending more time together soon,
Brian J. Roan