Films that narrate urban processes will always fascinate me, and those couched in the sci-fi genre will have me hooked. So when I first watchedAttack the Block a few ago, I was enthralled by it stylish and comedic pulse, but also engaged in its subplots of race, an urban underclass and gentrification. So with a few more years of experience in researching housing estates particularly in South London, I felt compelled to revisit Joe Cornish’s directorial debut, to dig a little deeper into the film’s rich mine of urban studies’ fodder.
The film is set on Bonfire Night in a fictional housing estate in South London. In the opening scene, Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is mugged by Moses (John Boyega) and his ‘crew’, after which she runs back home to the ‘block’ (played by the now demolished Heygate Estate). In the aftermath of the mugging, a large meteor-like projectile crashes into a car next to Moses. He inspects the damage, only to be attacked and wounded by what turns out to be an alien from outer space. Moses and his friends pursue the alien and kill it. They then bring the dead alien back to the block, up to the 19th floor. Here we meet Hi-Hatz, a nasty, stereotypical gangster who runs the fortified ‘weed room’ and clearly operates a drug ring (echoing many other cinematic tropes of urban verticality and illegal drug production). After deliberating about the origins of the ‘alien’, things soon take a turn for the worse when other meteors start crashing down to earth, except these aliens are far more viscous. The group of friends go outside to investigate, but are soon on the back foot, being chased by these wolf-like alien beings around the estate. During their escape, Moses is arrested by two police officers, which were out on patrol with Sam, looking for her muggers. The policemen though are soon brutally butchered by the aliens, but Moses and Sam escape. They attempt to get back into the block but encounter Hi-Hatz who is enraged by the group’s apparent disobedience and insubordination. From there, the film utilises the usual sci-fi adventure narrative of a group of protagonists embarking upon a journey with a specific goal, in this case to get up to the weed room where they know they will be safe, all the while being chased by these aliens, and by the film’s real monster, Hi-Hatz. Theorising that the original dead alien was the female, and the more viscous visitors are the males attracted by the female’s pheromones in order to mate, Moses decides to take matters into his own hands, and stop the invasion by himself. With some extremely well crafted twists, the film delivers genuine moments of shock and fear, all the while allowing us to relate to our anti-heroes, particularly Moses. The film’s third act delivers a fitting finale, and brings home some of the film’s overt and perhaps more subtle messages.
The first is that the film is (perhaps prophetically) playing out the demise of the Heygate Estate by the process of contemporary urban development. The demolition of the Heygate, and its subsequent redevelopment into luxury flats is used by many commentators as theexemplar of London’s gentrification. In Attack the Block, the alien force is faceless, homogenous and viscous; just some of the adjectives used to describe property developers in London. What is more, the aliens eradicate the humans in the film for no other purpose that they are in the way of them finding the female (with which presumably the idea is to mate and create more aliens). So much like the relentless desire for profit that can generate even more profit, real estate developers destroy local people’s homes, displace entire communities and rip the heart out of the estate they’re ‘redeveloping’.
The racial and class relations of the film are also blatantly interrogated. Young black men in Britain are often stigmatised as deviant, criminal and embodied by media and political narratives as the subjects of white, middle-class fear. Attack the Block starts off by playing out these stereotypes; the mugging by hooded, masked young black and mixed-race males is typical of the kind of story not uncommon in the mainstream media. However, throughout the film, Cornish slowly picks this narrative apart, showing these young men to be part of a homely community (the home lives of each of the young men are glimpsed, and they are shown to be warm, brightly-lit, familial and anything other than ‘broken’). Sam, who personifies the fearful white middle-class subject becomes integrated into group, and her fate becomes tied to theirs. There is a telling conversation toward the end of the film in which the young men state “Listen, yeah, we never knew you lived in the block. If we knew you, we wouldn’t have stepped you”. This small encounter explodes the underlying tensions between white middle class Britain and a vilified underclass; by communicating and ‘being known’ to each other, perhaps violence wouldn’t be necessary.
The film is a fascinating piece of urban cinema. While the special effects are decisively ropey, the comedic-dramatic cusp sometimes wavers and the peripheral characters add little to the plot, the film is far more than a funny, sometimes thrilling and captivating sci-fi adventure. It is also a critical commentary on current urban development processes and social life.
8/10 – Oli Mould