Back when I was trying to break into screenwriting, I consistently got into trouble for my heroes. “Why would I cheer for this person?” the befuddled executive would ask between sips of Diet Coke. “He’s not sympathetic.” I never understood this position, because I was raised on anti-heroes like Mad Max and Snake Plissken. Clint Eastwood did what he did for a little cash. Toshiro Mifune mostly wanted to grumpily wander around and not be bothered. The coolest characters in comics were Punisher, Wolverine, and the Frank Miller versions of Batman and Daredevil. As the heroes of films became blander and blander, I disconnected from them. It wasn’t that I couldn’t identify with their motives, it was that they were too perfect to read as a real person. They ended up less realistic than a special effect; Gollum is a better realized character than anything Channing Tatum has ever played.
I never thought this brand of anti-hero was gone for good, just out of style in the current climate of play-it-safe Hollywood. After all, those protagonists are geared to American viewpoints and the film industry no longer makes movies for American audiences. It’s appropriate then that the finest example of this kind of anti-hero would be a British film, 2011’s excellent creature feature Attack the Block. The ostensible heroes of the piece are a teenage proto-gang introduced mugging young nurse Sam (the extremely British and eerily familiar Jodie Whittaker). The film challenges us to cheer for them by boldly showing them at their worst before gradually revealing their humanity. It’s a risk, but one that pays off, both from the satisfaction of the character arc for the gang’s taciturn leader Moses (newcomer John Boyega) and for giving us a hero whose idea of treating with the aliens is burying a katana in their heads.
Attack the Block takes these characters and faces them with an alien invasion of sorts. Like the best alien movies, the goals of the creatures are never clear, but left for the characters to speculate upon. In this case, that task falls to Brewis, a twentysomething pothead with a fetish for nature shows, so his interpretation of events might not be the most reliable. The trouble stars when what looks like a meteorite slams into a car, interrupting the aforementioned mugging. Moses checks it out and gets jumped by a monster, which then flees into a nearby shed. Not one to be punked out, Moses leads his gang to take a quick and brutal revenge, kicking the thing to death. Unfortunately for them, more aliens fall to earth, and these are much, much bigger and extremely pissed off about what happened to the little one.
In the grand tradition of survival horror, the boys retreat to their home, in this case the titular block, a large housing project in South London, and get ready to fight the bear-sized monsters now intent on eating them alive. They form uneasy alliances with former victim Sam, Brewis the pothead, and Ron (Nick Frost), the local weed peddler, arm themselves with various hand weapons and firecrackers, and do their best. As more and more of these creatures converge on the block, the heroes realize they have to take drastic action if they’re going to save the world, and even more importantly, protect their little corner of London.
Attack the Block is a throwback film. The protagonist’s shaky moral code is only the beginning. The simple plot of kids dealing with aliens recalls classics like Invaders from Mars or even E.T., with the heavy slang suggesting childhood favorite The Goonies. The original creature is a nifty puppet in the tradition of Gremlins. The larger beasts are practical effects, enhanced with CGI. Though just guys in suits, the furry costumes are dyed unnaturally black, helping conceal the human qualities of the performer, leaving the audience instead to concentrate on the one clear feature: the beast’s maw of glow-in-the-dark teeth.
Moses is fifteen years old, but as Sam learns when she goes into his apartment for the first time, it’s an old fifteen. Once they have achieved a level of trust, he explains his actions, that he never would have mugged her had he known she lived in the block. It’s maybe the most important line in the film, as the rest of it takes pains to show that the block is one thing and the rest of London is something else entirely. The police, when they’re shown, are faceless and in full riot gear. Not as dangerous as the aliens, but certainly as inhuman. The cops are worse than useless, becoming another hazard our heroes must avoid in order to stay alive. They’re the representation of unearned authority: the British government doesn’t give a fuck about the low income residents of the block. The only time they show up is to arrest, assault, and oppress. It’s about time the British cops caught up to our boys Stateside.
Attack the Block is about urban tribalism. Like its predecessor The Warriors, it expertly avoids racism. The heroic gang is mostly black, though it has one and a half white members. The more dangerous drug dealers are pretty much evenly split. What’s far more important than skin color is the realities of living in the block. If you live there, you are a part of the tribe. And as Brewis learns, simply having rolling papers is sometimes enough to grant temporary membership. Cities are incredibly alienating places to live, so we form smaller tribes, either from devotion to the same team, same hobby, or same block. It’s a mostly positive development. Sure, outsiders are in danger, but at least a local woman could walk home at night without the slightest hint of fear.
Though it is a successor to American survival horror, Attack the Block is extremely British. Not that they’re all wandering around sipping tea and wondering what the vicar will think, but they all speak in British accents. Heavy working class British accents, liberally peppered with slang. The first couple scenes with Moses and his pals, you’ll wonder if they’re even speaking English. It gives the movie an authentic, lived in feel. Its nigh unintelligible dialect imparts an identity to the block. By the end of the film, you’ll have picked up their unique rhythms and the dialogue becomes much richer. You’ll immediately forget it afterwards, but that doesn’t matter unless you want to attack the block which we’ve established is a bad idea.
It all comes down to one simple thing. Kids like to play at alien invasion, zombie apocalypse, really anything where they get to be heroes. When I was that age, I had plans for both of them. The sawed off baseball bat in my closet wasn’t for hitting baseballs. In Attack the Block, the young anti-heroes get to do what we all fantasized about. And it’s just as fun as we thought it would be.