A Social Message Amid Rampaging Aliens in 'Attack the Block'

The rare invasion flick that has something to say about who's being invaded

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Attack the Block

In today’s science fiction genre, perhaps more than ever, Earth has become the intergalactic Sandals, Jamaica. Somewhere, in a galaxy far, far away, an extraterrestrial travel agency must be hawking cheap package deals for Earth vacations, and aliens are jumping at the chance to visit and blow up our cities. Avatar saw humanity politely returning the favor, traveling across the stars to trash someone else’s apartment, but Battle: L.A., Skyline, Super 8, Cloverfield, Cowboys & Aliens, and Transformers, among others, have all followed in the blockbuster-sized footsteps of Independence Day, where mankind plays host to a wide cast of intergalactic, ill-tempered house guests. The invasion genre is old—but today’s crop seems primarily interested in bringing outer space critters here just for the fun of having Earthlings fend them off.

As block residents get chewed into mush, Moses realizes that his own recklessness brought the creatures and is causing those around him to suffer

On the surface, Joe Cornish's Attack the Block, now in limited release in the U.S., does little to change this formula. Aliens, perhaps propelled to Earth by the film’s thrumming Basement Jaxx soundtrack, waste no time in falling from the sky and quickly get busy mutilating innocent bystanders. But hidden underneath the standard sci-fi fare is also a surprisingly affecting subplot that addresses not just aliens but the cycle of urban violence and how a whole community can suffer for the actions of a few.

As the camera descends on the gang of five friends, we find the heroes lurking in back alleys and side streets, searching for a suitable candidate for armed burglary. The opening instantly recalls The Wire, with its highly-kinetic, grooving dialogue that sucks the viewer in. By the time the opening credits fade, the audience already has a keen grasp of the group's hierarchy and personae. Whereas the mega-scale of many recent alien blockbusters often reduces characters to faceless ants scurrying between the legs of colossal invaders, Cornish’s cast of spunky South London youths is so magnetic that you may just leave the theater trying to pronounce everything in a cockney accent.

When the five hoodlums finally corner an unsuspecting nurse from their apartment block, their catch is interrupted by a flaming alien pod that blazes out of the sky and totals some poor chap's Honda. As the gang’s unsmiling leader, Moses (John Boyega), searches the wreckage, the pod's occupant—a kind of hairless, eyeless sloth—attacks Moses and scars his face before fleeing into a nearby playground. Incensed beyond reason, the gang pursues the alien with deadly intent. After they easily overpower the small creature, they take it back to the block where they proudly display their catch. Trouble arrives when the beast's bigger, meaner, toothier family shows up looking for their lost compatriots and start tearing through the titular concrete housing block. The boys, initially enthused at the prospect of more sloth brains to bash, “tool up” with firecrackers and baseball bats, and run hooting into the streets looking for trouble. But their bloodlust is quickly cooled when they encounter their new enemy, forcing them to flee back into the block. The remainder of the film is spent following the boys as they play high-tension hide and seek with their extra-terrestrial pursuers nipping at their bloodied heels, eventually taking refuge in the narcotics store room of the barely conscious but endearing stoner, Ron (Nick Frost of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead fame).

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Daniel D. Snyder is a writer based in New Mexico.

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