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

Paramount IFC Films telelvision The Purge Amazon Prime Video X-Men USA Network travel Nickelodeon biopic The Arrangement Britbox AMC Plus Nominations Marvel Studios rom-coms Set visit Red Carpet BBC deadpool TCA Awards wonder woman HBO Max worst Showtime NBC FX on Hulu Tokyo Olympics Heroines 21st Century Fox toy story HBO Go Winter TV Pet Sematary justice league Marvel spider-man Reality YouTube canceled critic resources all-time Emmy Nominations Animation Classic Film cults boxing Turner book aliens mission: impossible APB Pop Disney Channel period drama Sundance Now award winner Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Disney streaming service suspense name the review mockumentary GLAAD richard e. Grant mob Lifetime Christmas movies halloween tv space Biopics dramedy dogs die hard genre political drama Lionsgate crime Freeform Christmas news YA spanish language TCM Sci-Fi quibi Rocky NYCC revenge reviews japan WarnerMedia Alien jurassic park Elton John Comedy Central SXSW target tv talk USA cats 93rd Oscars diversity crime thriller movie Crunchyroll Film Festival crime drama Grammys Binge Guide Lifetime Epix Superheroes kaiju The Walking Dead dragons gangster Women's History Month doctor who Mindy Kaling worst movies slashers Marvel Television 72 Emmy Awards japanese Teen live action popular young adult sports boxoffice Premiere Dates Apple TV+ Baby Yoda discovery scorecard basketball BET MTV Awards blockbuster Television Critics Association new zealand adenture Anna Paquin TNT cancelled Funimation Spike ratings WGN debate festivals streaming movies Logo GIFs Oscars fast and furious First Look Warner Bros. satire live event Crackle comics 2017 Exclusive Video See It Skip It Black History Month concert documentaries olympics ITV natural history facebook chucky Hallmark Christmas movies Stephen King zombies TCA 2017 Instagram Live Valentine's Day ViacomCBS A&E joker DC Universe CBS All Access rt labs Syfy criterion TV One screen actors guild Sundance TV AMC rotten emmy awards godzilla DirecTV cars comic classics Mary poppins renewed TV shows Amazon Studios cancelled TV shows dark rotten movies we love LGBT Musical CMT Star Trek 2021 VH1 Chernobyl fresh Shondaland Pop TV LGBTQ Paramount Plus DC Comics YouTube Premium king kong TV breaking bad ESPN 24 frames nature BBC America streaming Hulu Holiday serial killer football Amazon TBS sequel Turner Classic Movies Travel Channel Best and Worst cancelled television new york game of thrones Universal Pictures films italian kids OneApp Cosplay DGA Legendary cooking hist Western sitcom Pirates Thanksgiving Infographic 20th Century Fox golden globe awards video dexter Fall TV Cartoon Network Apple Discovery Channel marvel comics Interview Spring TV Extras Summer marvel cinematic universe psycho 71st Emmy Awards docuseries elevated horror A24 BET Awards lord of the rings Song of Ice and Fire Opinion venice TV Land hispanic heritage month Schedule nfl technology Polls and Games 4/20 zombie toronto video on demand finale know your critic royal family universal monsters police drama ghosts Avengers superhero scary Pride Month politics zero dark thirty kong Masterpiece Country Certified Fresh VICE slasher romantic comedy directors based on movie 45 Trailer Sony Pictures History critics E3 halloween scene in color Mudbound Mary Tyler Moore teaser Emmys Neflix medical drama movies Comics on TV unscripted Photos Pixar reboot high school dreamworks 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards heist movie werewolf hidden camera Academy Awards indiana jones SundanceTV Spectrum Originals mutant Comic-Con@Home 2021 TIFF Martial Arts australia Fox News Amazon Prime obituary Endgame Watching Series binge legend Superheroe scary movies Ellie Kemper BAFTA mcc razzies book adaptation Hallmark Comic Book Countdown psychological thriller composers Reality Competition 2019 Fantasy monster movies President Year in Review Quiz Podcast ABC Tomatazos Video Games batman aapi action-comedy thriller Trophy Talk Disney Plus TruTV FOX TV renewals New York Comic Con casting 007 HBO indie Fox Searchlight Awards Tour talk show cops Disney The Witch comic book movies RT21 National Geographic Columbia Pictures hollywood hispanic Arrowverse ABC Signature Shudder what to watch strong female leads OWN Drama child's play jamie lee curtis superman robots Ghostbusters adaptation spy thriller CNN Comedy animated Black Mirror Nat Geo black comedy Winners Netflix Christmas movies social media science fiction Image Comics blockbusters Universal laika stoner true crime cancelled TV series a nightmare on elm street American Society of Cinematographers vampires San Diego Comic-Con best MSNBC Film Rom-Com SDCC south america IMDb TV romance Character Guide FXX franchise foreign Adult Swim prank children's TV saw television disaster Tubi archives Dark Horse Comics anime Mary Poppins Returns king arthur art house Television Academy The Walt Disney Company women Star Wars Rock Mystery docudrama supernatural trailers E! Peacock NBA Esquire spain Musicals new star wars movies crossover Lucasfilm spanish BBC One Election Brie Larson First Reviews 2016 independent RT History CW Seed pirates of the caribbean Box Office stop motion Trivia VOD Sneak Peek james bond free movies Calendar spinoff feel good Starz MCU Paramount Network anthology Cannes 90s biography black 2018 Disney+ Disney Plus Vudu 2015 harry potter twilight sopranos canceled TV shows comiccon Toys nbcuniversal comedies Hear Us Out Family parents El Rey Writers Guild of America Rocketman sequels Horror documentary asian-american festival witnail comic book movie Tarantino green book remakes TCA Winter 2020 christmas movies latino TLC PlayStation FX Food Network PaleyFest rt archives historical drama golden globes blaxploitation rt labs critics edition series international Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Tumblr Sundance YouTube Red french dc GoT 73rd Emmy Awards ID Wes Anderson The CW adventure stand-up comedy dceu 2020 Walt Disney Pictures Holidays Ovation Creative Arts Emmys Kids & Family TCA vs. Super Bowl miniseries Marathons CBS game show Action versus Netflix spider-verse Bravo transformers PBS Apple TV Plus singing competition cinemax DC streaming service cartoon Captain marvel Music screenings war Pacific Islander TV movies comic books sag awards posters ABC Family IFC 99% theme song Broadway The Academy 1990s Acorn TV