Sub-Cult

Why the 2011 Sci-Fi Sleeper Attack the Block Deserves Cult Status

Nathan Rabin looks back at an overlooked horror-comedy that spawned a couple of current genre stars.

by | January 18, 2018 | Comments

(Photo by Screen Gems)

Between his upcoming starring role in the new Pacific Rim movie (Pacific Rim: Uprising, opening March 23) and his central role in the current Star Wars trilogy, John Boyega is emerging as one of the young kings of contemporary science fiction movies. But cult movie fans know that Boyega’s evolution into a genre superstar began not so long ago in a land not so far away when he lent his charismatic presence to the 2011 British science fiction thriller Attack the Block.

Writer-director Joe Cornish’s lovely, small-scale directorial debut is another iconic story of kids on bikes who encounter creatures from another world, but it doesn’t try to appeal to the broadest, most international audience possible. It’s content being a very British riff on some very American movies. This ends up working in its favor, lending it a cultural specificity that grounds the action in a very distinct sociopolitical reality.

For example, instead of the soothingly nostalgic American suburbs of E.T. and its ilk — Gremlins, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Explorers — Attack the Block takes place amidst the graffiti-scarred concrete and runaway crime of a British high-rise in a bit of a dodgy neighborhood. It’s also set during Guy Fawkes Night, when bonfires are ceremonially set ablaze and fireworks fill the night sky, so it feels like the world is violently coming to an end even before space aliens show up.

It’s content being a very British riff on some very American movies.

Likewise, instead of apple-cheeked white children, the film’s heroes are a streetwise gang of mostly Black teenagers — led by Boyega’s Moses —  who while away the hours pulling stick-ups, smoking weed, riding bikes, and chasing girls. They’re low-level juvenile delinquents whose heavily accented slang is so thick that the film could intermittently benefit from a British street slang-to-American English translator.  And instead of kindly extra-terrestrials, the kids encounter scary monsters with glowing teeth uninterested in Reese’s Pieces or calling home. These beasties from beyond seem pretty monomaniacally focused on killing everything they encounter, and the only thing standing in their way is a ragtag group of street kids armed with bats and fireworks and everyday tools.

Even as a first-time director, Cornish is confident enough in himself, his characters, his actors, and his material to introduce Moses, the film’s hero, and his pack attempting to rob Samantha Adams (a tough, terrific Jodie Whittaker), a nurse who lives in the building where most of the action takes place, knowing that by the end of the film, we’ll be enthusiastically rooting for them. Cornish takes a big risk in making his heroes not just small-time criminals, but small-time criminals who terrorize a vulnerable young woman. It’s a bold move that pays off when Moses slowly but surely emerges as a hero for the ages.

Moses and his buddies’ natural habitat is perilous even before aliens descend upon it. In the film’s most clear-cut social commentary, Moses bleakly posits the aliens as one more conspiracy perpetrated by the powers that be to destroy the black man, a process that previously involved herding them into dispiriting high-rises and flooding their communities with drugs.

That said, Attack the Block is radically non-moralistic. The story finds a criminal joining forces with someone they have every right to see as their natural enemy for the sake of their mutual survival. It does not seem coincidental that characters willing to put aside their differences fare a whole lot better than those who don’t.

But the film also doesn’t treat Moses and his buddies as criminals so much as bored kids doing whatever it takes to pass the time. It’s similarly non-judgmental about many of its heroes either smoking or selling marijuana. Heck, it doesn’t even seem particularly bothered by the opening crime that unhappily brings Samantha together with Moses and his crew.

Cornish makes particularly brilliant use of shadows; his alien monsters are inky figures of pure darkness.

Over the course of Attack the Block, of course, Moses earns his would-be victim’s trust and her respect. He begins in a place of complete selfishness, prioritizing his own needs and wants over the emotions of the people around him, and ends in a place of selflessness, more or less, as a hero willing to risk it all for the sake of defending what’s his. He is a thief with honor, a thief with a moral code, and as the alien invasion continues, he becomes something much more.

Cornish clearly didn’t have a lot of money to work with, so he transformed his limitations into strengths. He makes particularly brilliant use of shadows; his alien monsters are inky figures of pure darkness with big, garish, glow-in-the-dark fangs. The longer we look at a monster, the less scary it tends to become — that’s one of the many lessons of Jaws — but Cornish is adept at continually conveying the ominous presence of his monsters through their glowing fangs while depicting their bodies largely through shadow and silhouette.

Attack the Block is also claustrophobic in the best possible sense. Cornish and his exceedingly game, largely untested cast make the shoddy, grey, depressing high-rise of its setting a universe unto itself, with its own rules, players, and unspoken codes of conduct. Instead of blasting into outer space, Attack the Block offers a street-level action comedy of survival.

Movies like this walk a fine line tonally. Inject too much goofy comedy and the movie becomes too silly to be scary. A dour, straight-faced approach to a premise like this, on the other hand, risks provoking an avalanche of unintentional laughs. Thankfully, Cornish and his collaborators strike the perfect balance between silly and scary, tongue-in-cheek yet full of legitimate tension. It’s scary, sure, but also a lot of fun.

Attack the Block was executive produced by Edgar Wright and shares the loving geekiness and sly wit of his best work. Given their simpatico sensibilities, it’s not surprising that Wright later teamed up with Cornish to work on the screenplays of Ant-Man and The Adventures of Tintin. It’s similarly unsurprising that Wright fixture Nick Frost steals his scenes in Attack the Block as Ron, a droll drug dealer who looks like a roadie from the 1980s and who isn’t about to let something as minor as an alien invasion ruin his high. Incidentally, this is not the only time Boyega, Wright, and Cornish have worked together: after Cornish’s name was tossed around as a possible director for a Star Wars movie, he had to settle for a cameo in The Last Jedi alongside Wright.

Boyega is a master of minimalism, a man of few words.

As noted earlier, John Carpenter is also a clear influence on the film, a delightful British take on warmly remembered 1970s and 1980s classics whose sense of cross-cultural fusion is epitomized by a terrific Basement Jaxx score that puts a squiggly, electronic twist on the icy, menacing atmosphere of Carpenter’s early film scores. Its themes also closely echo Assault on Precinct 13, and Carpenter’s own feature debut, 1974’s Dark Star, is a masterpiece of the broad science fiction stoner comedy genre in which Attack the Block belongs.

And like Carpenter’s stoic heroes/anti-heroes — most notably the ones played by his favorite leading man, Kurt Russell — Boyega is a master of minimalism, a man of few words who can convey more with an angry scowl than lesser actors get out of pages of dialogue. Attack the Block is a star-making vehicle in the truest sense. Boyega began the film an unknown and exited it a star whose magnitude has only grown in the intervening years.

Like all great science fiction movies, particularly those involving aliens, Attack the Block cries out for a sequel, but it’s pretty perfect as a funky stand-alone sleeper that takes the smart-ass grit of early John Carpenter into unexpected but inspired new places. Besides, considering his recent success, it seems like Boyega might be booked solid for the next couple of decades or so.

Oh, and Whittaker, who is also fantastic in a less showy role, looks to be awfully busy for the indefinite future as well, since she was recently named the first female Doctor Who. Boyega obviously wasn’t the only one destined for distinctly genre-specific greatness.


Original Certification: Fresh
Tomatometer: 90 percent
Re-Certification: Fresh


Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

Tag Cloud

worst name the review Reality Competition Awards Tour 72 Emmy Awards ABC Family versus south america Western Amazon unscripted Avengers Countdown Winners video christmas movies children's TV mutant Martial Arts 20th Century Fox sag awards The Walking Dead cats Freeform Turner Lionsgate finale cancelled TV series Premiere Dates a nightmare on elm street First Reviews A24 Apple TV+ free movies Chernobyl psycho Mary Poppins Returns politics Christmas chucky remakes anime directors Mudbound reviews VOD obituary Lucasfilm First Look romantic comedy spy thriller 2017 elevated horror Teen Showtime miniseries what to watch Animation PlayStation ABC documentaries Mary poppins Ghostbusters Infographic FOX YouTube Pop TV TLC Black History Month adaptation MTV hispanic Watching Series parents kids Election Heroines halloween Ovation Fall TV independent canceled fast and furious Nickelodeon thriller festivals X-Men Star Wars social media transformers sports Music Disney+ Disney Plus 71st Emmy Awards best police drama TCA Awards satire BET Awards Classic Film Apple TV Plus historical drama Warner Bros. serial killer Family Reality werewolf green book Drama FX on Hulu Rom-Com The Purge zombie Mindy Kaling award winner American Society of Cinematographers comic Mary Tyler Moore die hard Sundance TV Discovery Channel Peacock SXSW Comedy Central TV DC streaming service Endgame Walt Disney Pictures History OWN 2015 movies movie jamie lee curtis Marvel Television mockumentary TruTV Tumblr Photos quibi franchise Funimation IFC talk show BAFTA Writers Guild of America Anna Paquin Nat Geo Pirates Calendar Binge Guide LGBT Disney streaming service Tubi Trophy Talk screen actors guild Fox News medical drama ratings Amazon Prime Video Pixar boxoffice Comedy CBS TCA Winter 2020 Polls and Games cartoon 24 frames Brie Larson Epix dramedy based on movie BBC adventure Paramount Network concert spanish language crime thriller See It Skip It Disney Plus 2019 BET sequel singing competition cops festival Marvel Comic Book twilight Elton John TNT El Rey HBO Go Pop nature comiccon reboot space TV renewals LGBTQ E! Starz critics Britbox dogs Stephen King blockbuster DC Comics Set visit war ghosts hist psychological thriller justice league E3 football Baby Yoda game show Crunchyroll Toys Masterpiece series Tarantino Marvel Studios Musical facebook DC Universe Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt nbcuniversal Red Carpet Pride Month DirecTV cooking latino HBO Video Games Columbia Pictures asian-american Esquire HBO Max binge blaxploitation criterion crime Schedule Musicals 4/20 political drama Pet Sematary hollywood Super Bowl Rock richard e. Grant streaming Holiday Sneak Peek dceu Women's History Month Shudder APB batman Rocky San Diego Comic-Con President Sony Pictures Disney spain CBS All Access spider-man Shondaland YA child's play screenings revenge 45 comics anthology Amazon Studios OneApp Dark Horse Comics YouTube Red theme song stop motion nfl documentary doctor who Podcast foreign diversity Opinion renewed TV shows Adult Swim mission: impossible Universal FX CNN cults Winter TV stoner Syfy Box Office rotten Chilling Adventures of Sabrina composers venice TIFF toronto period drama Star Trek rotten movies we love VICE TV Land Disney Channel harry potter Cosplay Ellie Kemper Lifetime Biopics BBC America Emmys crossover natural history FXX cinemax tv talk MSNBC Superheroes dark MCU Superheroe PBS Awards TCM Country news book sequels Travel Channel Mystery Sundance Now Arrowverse Best and Worst Hulu laika sitcom toy story true crime Sci-Fi Oscars disaster Logo SundanceTV Fantasy GoT dc canceled TV shows 2018 scorecard Creative Arts Emmys all-time Hear Us Out scary movies supernatural 2020 Song of Ice and Fire VH1 game of thrones YouTube Premium witnail robots 21st Century Fox zero dark thirty BBC One science fiction films Spring TV Spectrum Originals WarnerMedia USA universal monsters indiana jones emmy awards 2016 crime drama breaking bad video on demand Spike vampires CMT National Geographic ESPN Academy Awards Holidays AMC spinoff Netflix PaleyFest cancelled television stand-up comedy CW Seed Tomatazos Black Mirror New York Comic Con casting TBS Thanksgiving zombies TCA Television Academy Cannes Apple classics IFC Films Captain marvel SDCC teaser Marathons golden globes Quiz dragons Sundance aliens slashers A&E superhero Turner Classic Movies Cartoon Network Television Critics Association docudrama romance strong female leads Character Guide Valentine's Day Food Network NBC Nominations RT21 Vudu Emmy Nominations Interview The Arrangement cancelled TV shows Crackle Grammys Year in Review 007 RT History Summer Certified Fresh Hallmark worst movies Horror Film Festival biography The CW TCA 2017 Hallmark Christmas movies GLAAD travel Bravo cars USA Network comedies Film discovery Extras joker Trivia Netflix Christmas movies technology Paramount WGN Kids & Family Action Rocketman Trailer Amazon Prime Acorn TV indie television ITV animated The Witch GIFs cancelled Comics on TV DGA NYCC Lifetime Christmas movies