William Gibson said that when he reads a science fiction story by Alfred Bester he doesn’t get any ideas about the future but he does get a feeling for what it was like to be an adult living in New York in the Fifties. Science fiction stories are always set in the present. Science fiction movies are lucky if they even come close to the present. By the time a movie gets made it’s often referring to something that’s had it’s day. Film is at best a souvenir. Viewing Attack the Block is like watching something from a simpler time. Like maybe two weeks ago. A sci-fi, comedy-thriller with a group of gang kids from the London council flats as the heroes. It seems like a logical project for the guys behind Shaun of the Dead. But would anyone give you the money if you pitched this idea now?
As London pulls itself back together after last week’s riots there’s going to be a predictable backlash against the perpetrators and their culture. There will also be the equally predictable accusations of police agent provocateurs starting it to level some real estate and increase police powers in time for the London Olympics. More po-po and more Orwellian surveillance will appear to be the obvious solution. In all of this the clever ironies, gags and cultural backflips that Attack the Block plays with will be lost on the law and order crowd. Expect a Tory backbencher to denounce the film (partially funded through government lottery funds) in an attempt to step up the government’s channelling cultural funds where they want them to go.
Does Attack the Block deserve this kind of rep? So far, I’d have to say that it’s the best Eighties movie of this century. It’s closer to Friday the Thirteenth or Diehard than it is to any of the current spate of alien invasion pictures. Like them it validates a specific group of humans like U.S. marines (Battle L.A.) or American cowboys (Cowboys and Aliens) by pitting them against an opponent tailored to bring out the best in the heroes. Unlike those films Attack the Block finds its heroes among a group of people slated for urban renewal in a society that views them as the problem.
The film makes its strongest points simply and keeps a steady pace of escalating set-ups like any good B picture should. There are no wasted details and the dialogue is tight and slyly funny. The aliens are simple and effective; the product of clever mechanical and digital effects. They are a great mix of menacing and ridiculous. More like the Best Episode of Doctor Who Ever or Pitch Black without the Diesel and a sharper sense of humour. In short it’s cheap, efficient fun and poses no threat to civilisation. It’s a summer movie set in the parts of London that London wants to forget about. It’s an aliens vs. the alienated kind of world.
For a best viewing experience see it at a suburban multiplex in the middle of some big box store development. The council flats of London started of as an utilitarian solution to housing the poor but rapidly devolved into a simple exercise in warehousing. That the rest of urban planning should follow through was inevitable. The mega-store, the multi-plex and the condominium are just a working out of this concept. By emphasising the destination and surrounding each buiding with a sea of parking one can simplify the street and render the chaos of urban life manageable but the street has its ways. That the boys in the hoods, like the protesters in Cairo were able to use cell phones to co-ordinate their actions and for a time able to out flank the five-oh is maybe the most interesting part of the riots. That encryption schemes developed for executive class Blackberry users provided the lower rungs of the underclass with a brief tactical edge is as ironic as it was inevitable. Returning to William Gibson, from the short story Burning Chrome, “…the street finds its own uses for things”.