on Attack the Block
Updated: Mar 4, 2019
I have a problem with Attack the Block. I think it's really well shot, the cast do a really good job – the acting's sparky, it has some great lines, it's well constructed, the effects and the creature design are fantastic. Great idea, great title, brilliant tagline (Inner City versus Outer Space). All in all it's really well put together, superbly directed and steered by Joe Cornish, who has launched himself very impressively with this debut and I'm sure is going to go on and do lots of great things... But I have a problem with Attack the Block. At the time of watching I had quite a strong gut reaction against it, which I have since had the chance to rationalise and intellectualise, and which I will now try to articulate…
I saw the film when it was released in cinemas, which is a little while ago now. You will have to pull me up on any inaccuracies. Let’s hope my memory (supported by google) does the job. Spoilers of follow…
The route of the problem lies in the very first scene of the movie. Sam (20s, played by Jodie Whittaker) is walking back home from the tube station after dark, having recently moved into a new council flat in a South London tower estate. Walking down the road, she is encircled by a gang of hoodies on bikes, all menacing, bandanas masking their faces. Moses, their leader, pulls a knife on her, demands her purse and jewelry. They mug her, using intimidation and the threat of violence, and then disappear off. Sam is terrified and then shell-shocked, scared shitless. It’s a horrible thing to go through, and Moses and his gang inflicted that fear and that terror in her. We follow Sam as she makes a report to the police, but we also follow this crew of hoodies, particularly Moses, who becomes the hero of the piece. Later (once the alien attack is under way) the gang barge into Sam’s flat to escape whatever it is that is after them. Again – what a terrifying experience for her. It’s many people’s nightmare. This time, the film tries to ride over some of the terror of the situation with humour.
Fast forward. In the very last scene of the film, Moses is arrested by police, cuffed and walked to the police van, locked inside and driven off to jail. Outside, the gathered crowds start chanting his name, hailing him as a hero. The end. Although he’s being banged up, it’s a glorious exit. So here we have beginning and end: gang leader and street terrorist to champion and hero. Moses’ character arc is a line plotted between these two points. Superficially, at the very least, there’s something a bit wrong in that. There seems to be a lack of justice in this outcome.
Looking at where a character ends up compared to where he/she began (in terms of their values, status, outlook etc.) can be a very useful tool in story analysis. However, in this case there’s quite a lot that goes on in between. Moses’ arc is not a straight line, nor even a simple curve. So what happens? What does that line look like? What’s in the in-between?
Maybe I should state the problem clearly. I have trouble forgiving our ‘hero’ for what he does in that first scene. I find it hard to ‘fraternise’ with these teenagers (as the narrative perspective makes us) and enjoy their company while I’m wanting the story to deliver some kind of retribution against them. I’m finding it hard to participate in their humour and laugh along with them, given what they’ve just done – even if the lines and characters are funny. For a comedy this is no small issue. Moses, most of all of them, needs to be punished, knocked down. I’m waiting for the foot to be on the other shoe – I want him to be as frightened and terrified as he made Sam feel. In a way this is exactly what the story engineers when along come these killer alien monsters (it’s that lesson of ‘there’s always a bigger fish’). Except John Boyega plays Moses stony-faced, fearless, ever mean. He’s a ‘bad boy’ and that bad boy never gets broken down to the extent that he should be. Really, you want him pissing his pants, if not actually eaten alive – which is what happens to his immediate crew (all but one of them). Even the loss of his friends doesn’t quite seem to do it. Maybe having him break down and show greater fear and vulnerability would have made him a ‘pussy’ in the eyes of the film’s primary target audience, who prefer to see some kind of bad boy gangster idol. I don’t care. And this is the larger problem, which I’ll come to…
Retribution or punishment is part of it, learning is another. And the third element we might hope or expect to see is redemption (through heroic or selfless action). Does Moses learn the error of his ways? As his gang get to know Sam, and they are forced to fight off the aliens together, they do gain sympathy for her, and they tell her they wouldn’t have mugged her if they’d known she lived on the estate. It’s not enough. It never quite amounts to genuine, deeply felt regret or shame. Will Moses ever mug someone again? Probably not. But the film fails to portray him in a state of true inner crisis. I think I need Moses to truly confront who he is and what he’s about (in a dramatic way). Perhaps John Boyega (for all he does well) wasn’t yet capable of portraying this. Maybe Joe Cornish was too happy to let him play out the film as the bad boy gangster, the action hero. I don’t think there’s the necessary in-between.
As it plays out, it’s more Sam that’s ‘schooled’, educated in the course of the narrative. She learns that her teenage attackers are more than just ‘hoodies’. The film suggests that – by getting to know the kids – she becomes able to see past the maligned image they have been given. Sam’s preconceptions are changed. But her preconceptions were right! These guys mugged her! She’s scared when she first sees these kids on bikes, a fraction prematurely perhaps. But then her reaction is entirely justified – they do exactly what she fears. Perhaps there is another film in which that first scene becomes a misunderstanding: Sam might see Moses and his gang, misconstrue their intentions, become panicked and surrender her purse. That design might not be entirely satisfactory, but there is a logic to it. Perhaps such a setup would have merely led to an avoidance of the issue (of youth crime and gangster idolatry).
As for heroic redemption, perhaps we can grant Moses this. He kills all the aliens and saves the block, at extreme risk to his own life. But is this done in the spirit of self-sacrifice? Or is it done in the spirit of survival, and of being a bad-ass? The question is important. His actions are certainly brave, courageous, but do we really see them in the context of atonement? Is he willing to die for others (for Sam, for people he might have otherwise ‘jacked’ that same day)? It’s perhaps not clear…
It’s not just that the film fails to show Moses properly punished or ‘schooled’ (in my opinion), it’s what it says about the type he represents. Why should the fate of one character bug me so? Why does it matter at all? Joe Cornish didn’t just write a comic sci fi actioner, he also (inadvertently) wrote a gangster film – one in which being a badass pays. Moses’ character type is instantly recognisable. He’s one of those kids that always sports that obligatory mask which says ‘don’t fuck with me or I’ll fuck you up. In fact, don’t even look at me or I’ll fuck you up.’ Yes, maybe it’s the culture they live in. Maybe some element of that is a necessity if you’re born inner city, ‘raised on the street’, on an impoverished and crime-ridden estate. But it shouldn’t be that way. That’s a culture society has to try and defeat and overcome. Because Moses isn’t swallowed up by an alien monster, because he vanquishes the invaders in awesome style, he becomes a champion for that bad boy type, a poster-boy for young ‘gangsters’. This guy has swagger, he has a mean look, he’s bad, he knows how to fight. And this guy wins the day. That fact, on some level, justifies his whole outward persona. The film, unfortunately, manages to emphasise some of the wrong values. Rather than selflessness, sacrifice, empathy for other human beings (although these traits are in there), I think what comes out more and what those young audiences will recognise and respond to is how ‘gangster’ this guy is. I think it’s terrible that that’s what they should take away, but somehow that’s what I see happening. Kids (dressed by JD Sports) coming out the cinema saying ‘let’s get tooled up blud!’, wanting to be (like Moses) the most lethal young gangster. The fact that Moses gets arrested at the end manages to make this worse – somehow the police (the pigs, the 5-0) are the enemy, incarcerating our hero.
It’s a weird one, because I think Joe Cornish actually tries to do all the right things. The overall design is excellent – it made sense and should have worked. He tries to make Moses pay, he does try to show him learning, and he does try to give him redemption. I just don’t think he carries it off. It’s too lost in the action. I don’t think that character crisis is expressed well enough. It’s a subtle but important matter. Maybe making a good, funny action film with a cool hero was always more important, and it’s hard to criticise that position. Perhaps it all depends on how you feel about the severity of the act of mugging. I think it can make people feel afraid in their daily life, which is actually quite a terrible thing.
Films say things. They have inherent value systems. Didacticism is more often than not loathable in art and entertainment, but I do think art should affirm what is true and good. There’s a kind of ‘gangster idolatry’ in Attack the Block which I think has a moral question mark over it. It depicts a world in which the meanest mo'fo' is king and champion. It disappoints me more because this film was an opportunity (very narrowly missed) to make a powerful statement about what really are heroic qualities, how a hero should be.