Retro-Review: Attack The Block Is A Gritty Alien Romp With A Powerful Message About The Black Experience - Comic Years
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Retro-Review: Attack The Block Is A Gritty Alien Romp With A Powerful Message About The Black Experience

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BY June 26, 2020

The sci-fi film Attack The Block came out in 2011, but nearly a decade later the messages in the movie are more relevant than ever. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests around the world – and a passionate speech given by actor John Boyega at a recent rally in London’s Hyde Park – people are revisiting Attack The Block. I recently watched Attack The Block for the first time and thought it was a good time to write a retro-review of the film. Let’s dive into this unexpected gem and explore why it remains so relevant.

Attack The Block Image via Studio Canada Features

Attack The Block: A Retro Review

The premise of Attack The Block is relatively simple, in the midst of mugging a woman (Jodie Whittaker long before she became Doctor Who) a group of teenagers are interrupted by a mysterious creature falling from the sky. This monster attacks the leader of the group, Moses (John Boyega) and runs off into the night. The kids follow the alien and kill it, dragging its corpse back to the block. What follows is a fast-paced action movie with more aliens attacking the city, as Moses and his crew attempt to defend their home.

At first glance, this type of movie seems to fall into several categories. On one hand, the film delivers a familiar coming-of-age story with kids on an adventure (ala The Goonies) only they are fighting an alien invasion of their home. The kids of Attack The Block are also far more worldly, beaten down, and smoke a lot more weed.

This film is like the antidote to the movie Super 8 by J.J. Abrams that came out the same year and follows a similar premise. The differences between the two films are stark. Super 8 revolved around primarily white kids in a rural setting. Most films along these lines tend to follow that familiar format. But Attack The Block breaks those rules, as it follows a group of primarily black kids in an urban setting. Instead of the wide open fields of rural America, we follow Moses and his crew through the twists and turns of their shadowy South London home base. We also see what their lives on the block are like, and their struggle to thrive amidst poverty and systemic racism.

Attack The Block Image via Sony Pictures

Attack The Block Is A Refreshing Take On The Creature Feature

The film is also a refreshing and modern take on the creature feature genre. This genre was popularized between the 1950’s and 1980’s, with the 1960’s bringing many prominent British horror films in the genre. Movies of this genre are typically a hybrid of science fiction and horror, focusing on individual monsters or the threat of alien invasion. Another John Boyega film Pacific Rim, also falls into this category.

Attack The Block is definitely a low-budget alien film like many creature features of the past. But director Joe Cornish cleverly utilizes practical effects and lighting to create the familiar sense of unease that is common in the genre. The aliens are shadow creatures, with a fur “blacker than black” and glowing bioluminescent teeth. They don’t appear to have eyes, and it seems like they track primarily through scent. This leads to some truly tense moments where the monsters slip in and out of the shadows, their glowing jaws the only thing that you see before they close in over you.

However, instead of the camp that usually accompanies a creature feature, Attack The Block opts instead for dark comedy and a compelling metaphor for the black experience. So much of this movie is about perception. How humans perceive the darkness and the horror of the aliens. And how people perceive each other, particularly other people who are different from themselves.

Attack The Block Monsters Image via Sony Pictures

Attack The Block Is A Compelling Metaphor For The Black Experience

From the beginning of the film, we are given insight into the black experience for these kids in South London. The film opens with the character of Sam (Jodie Whittaker) walking home alone in the dark. There is a moment when she sees some shadowy figures at the end of the street. Her fear is palpable. In this first shot of Moses and his crew, they are the ones set up as monsters from the viewpoint of the white woman. They look to be just as terrifying to the white woman alone as any alien would be. This is a familiar fear, one that has been tread in countless films over the years. The fear of the other. The fear of the black man, even when these are clearly kids.

The aliens themselves also double as a metaphor for the black experience. These shadowy figures stalk the kids through the streets of South London, and even into their own homes. In so many ways they stand in for the fear felt by people of color. Fear of the police, the authority, and of the racism that literally shadows them wherever they go. There is also a theme of ‘reaping the consequences of your actions’ that comes up several times in the movie. Moses killed one the aliens own, and they kill his people in return. The monsters also work as a metaphor for the dark cloud of past actions. They must be faced in order to survive and grow.

Heroes And Villains All Depend On Who Holds The Power

Attack The Block Crew Image via Sony Pictures

John Boyega’s character of Moses is an unlikely hero in Attack The Block. He starts off being portrayed as a villain, a bad kid, a ‘thug.’ Then the movie cleverly turns expectations on their head and turns him into the hero. When the kids form an uneasy alliance with Sam, we are reminded that their actions at the beginning of the movie still haunt her. Her fear of them is still palpable, despite the greater threat facing everyone on the block. Her perception of them is that they are just a gang, and she wants nothing to do with them.

The film forces the viewers to grapple with these facts. That these are just kids, who are struggling to survive. But they have also done bad things, their actions have negatively impacted others. And yet, they are the ones who are brave enough to fight back and protect their home. They are deeply loyal to each other and to to their neighborhood. The nuance and complexity of the situation is thought provoking, and highly relevant to the black experience in the world both in 2011 and today in 2020.

The Police Are A Different Type of Monster

Attack The Block Image via Sony Pictures

The fear that the kids have of the police throughout the film is palpable and realistic. When the (white) policemen apprehend Moses early on in the film he is begrudgingly resigned to the situation. It is clearly a familiar situation for him. But he is also anxious to get inside the police van, a place that might provide some relative safety from the monsters in the dark. However, it soon becomes clear that the police cannot protect anyone from this threat. Their firepower and swaggering is no match for the aliens. It is up to Moses and his crew to protect their home.

There is a moment halfway through the film when Moses delivers a powerful speech. His character is typically very quiet and stoic throughout the film. Other members of his crew make up for this with their rapid fire dialogue and quick jokes. But Moses brings everything to a standstill with this powerful statement that demonstrates both the intelligence and pain underlying his character.

“Know what I reckon, yeah? I reckon the feds sent them anyway. Government probably bred those creatures to kill Black boys. First they sent drugs to the ends. Then they sent guns. Now they send monsters to get us. They don’t care, man. We ain’t killing each other fast enough, so they decided to speed up the process.”

When Moses says this, it is utterly believable. We don’t know where the monsters came from, and it is clear that his experiences with authority figures have disillusioned him. And it is unsurprising. There are countless examples of white governments who have attempted to eradicate black people. England has notoriously erased large portions of their own history to deny their racist and colonialist ways. This social commentary from Moses sums up the distrust that people of color have for racist institutions like their own government, and it is entirely warranted. This is no simple sci-fi movie, it is a powerful allegory that remains highly relevant.

Attack The Bloc k Image via Sony Pictures

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Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.

aliensAttack The BlockBlack Lives MatterCreature FeatureFilmhorrorJodie WhittakerJoe CornishJohn Boyegamovie reviewRetro ReviewSci-FiScience Fiction

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