Thursday 12 May 2011

Close encounters of the urban kind: "Attack the Block"

There is something to be said for the renewed commercialisation of the British film industry. Whatever the individual merits of the Kidulthood series and its various spin-offs and imitators, they were at least reaching out to an audience presumed long lost to their X-Boxes, and putting money back in the collective pot. Success, after all, breeds success, and - who knows? - the confidence engendered by all this boffo box-office business may yet result in qualitatively better films at some point. Still, the thought "is it enough?" struck me while watching the other week's The Veteran - an attempt to do Bourne on the budget of a couple of episodes of The Bill - and it popped into my head once again watching Attack the Block, the directorial debut of Joe Cornish. This urban SF opus hits upon a copper-bottomed movie premise - hoodies versus aliens on a contemporary South London housing estate - and puts it on the screen without thinking how it might be developed further. All its trailer moments and not inconsiderable movie nous ebb away to... well, not as much, ultimately, as long-time fans of Cornish might have hoped for.

It opens well, at least. The muggers and merkers of the allusively named Wyndham Tower find themselves outnumbered for once, one Bonfire Night, when a fusillade of extraterrestrial rockets crash into the Brixton area, disgorging what look like overgrown beardogs sporting luminescent green teeth. These creatures come not in peace, and the trouble is that no-one will believe the delinquent heroes when they try to report it: not the police, inevitably, nor the young nurse (Jodie Whittaker) whom they've just relieved of a handbag, but equally not the block's resident trustafarian (Luke Treadaway) - who would appear to be desperate to be down with these kids - nor the local drug dealers. When gang leader Moses (John Boyega) slays one of the beasts, and brings in its still-dripping corpse, everyone assumes it's a puppet, or a left-over Hallowe'en get-up. As ever, the estate's residents are left to fight their own battles.

Though the director's comrade-in-comedy-arms Adam Buxton has a cameo of sorts, heard narrating a nature doc on the mating habits of the female moth (and thus providing vital exposition for the finale), anyone going into Attack the Block expecting the po-mo larkiness of the pair's TV and radio work is likely to emerge disappointed. The film's a grimy 87-minute sprint, with no time for any such fripperies; it means business, in a way, but the pity is that, like so many of its contemporaries in the New British Urban Cinema, that's really all it means. (Even that running time seems a choice made not of aesthetics, but to ensure the greatest number of playtimes in multiplexes.)

The last round of alien-invasion movies - the Sony-backed Battle Los Angeles and its nimble indie spoiler Skyline - revealed (albeit unintentionally, in the example of the former) something of the people and places coming under attack, but Attack really doesn't. Though it shares producers, it's hardly comparable to Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, a pair of works fascinated by the English response to the outbreak of chaos; set it against the John Carpenter movies to which Cornish tips his hat here (and Assault on Precinct 13, in particular), and the new film is mute indeed on the subjects of urban deprivation, paranoia, and lives lived in poverty - but then that may be the difference between a filmmaker with things to say and one who only has other films to quote.

I can understand why the Caucasian Cornish - whose only analogue in the film would be Treadaway's posh slummer - went looking for authenticity in his cast, recruiting them from local youth clubs, but these largely unfamiliar performers contrive to be natural, varyingly threatening or posturing, and not terribly interesting or sympathetic with it. These are representatives of the film's target audience above all else, and while some effort is made to set out a dog-eat-dog foodchain, to delineate the Wyndham estate's playas from its true paupers, they're generally subject to an outsider's gaze; they register as an indistinguishable, trash-talking rabble, one whose losses we can't mourn, whose triumphs we scarcely feel compelled to cheer, in part because the film never allows us the time or inclination to do so. In the interests of balance, the aliens' presence, and their behaviour once here, is no more motivated, and the handful of pros on the sidelines (Whittaker, Treadaway, Nick Frost) have nothing more to offer than furrowed-brow chaperoning.

It's still preferable to trying to engage with Ne-Yo in Battle Los Angeles, of course, but in the end, Attack the Block really is no more than hoodies on one side, aliens on the other, and a fair bit of running around in between. If this is what you're in the market for of a Saturday night, then it'll do just fine - but it's a very ordinary B-movie being offered up on a wave of hype to the multiplexes, and there are issues of scale and expectation that go with that. At the risk of sounding rather like Tom Tortoise, you'd still take the likes of Toytanic and Toyspotting over Attack the Block, because these perfectly formed pastiches were something more than just mere movie plots - an attempt at overturning the conventions and cliches behind their inspiration. Cornish will go on to make better films than this - I like to think he missed having Captain Buckles alongside him, who might have been able to amp up or shoot down these ideas in the friendliest of fashions - but for the time being, it's still something of an anticlimax to come away from the feature debut of a proven talent thinking it doesn't measure up to his earlier, funnier, furrier works.

Attack the Block opens nationwide tomorrow.

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