Mayhem and Probs

I enjoyed Joe Cornish’s ATTACK THE BLOCK. which I saw with friends Marvelous Mary, David and Ali, and young Louis. I don’t have a lot to add to the general impression of approval emanating from the print media — it’s great to see a film which takes representation of British experience seriously while still delivering an entertainment. I remember Mike Leigh expressing satisfaction that ALL OR NOTHING was getting a wider distribution than usual so that his film about life in sink estates could be seen by people IN sink estates, and thinking, “Yeah, but be honest, why would they go see it? They know what it’s like.” Cornish has actually given the real-life equivalents of the heroes of his film something to enjoy, something that they can’t get at home: alien invasion.

It’s the alien invasion I want to dwell on, because that’s in some ways the film’s weakest part. Although the movie has a few scattered pop-culture allusions (the setting is Wyndham Tower, a nod to the author of numerous British sci-fi classics, and repeated mentions of Ballard Street tip the hat in the direction of another master of apocalypse, but where is the H.G. Wells tribute?), it doesn’t seem to have bothered much with imaging a coherent alien race. An eleventh-hour plot twist involving pheremones is the only real idea offered, and otherwise we’re asked to believe in a race of interstellar travelers too dumb to figure out how to open a wheelie bin. One bit of narrative development is surely not enough — ALIEN gave us the egg, the face-hugger, the chest-burster and the full-grown man-sized Geiger biker dude, after all. If it’s not going to be transformations in size and appearance, it should be a transformation in our understanding of the creatures’ purpose and behaviour, which is only grudgingly offered here, and doesn’t ultimately make much sense (if this is a mating ritual, why are the pheremone-doused humans KILLED?). A promising idea, that the film’s nominal hero, Moses, may be responsible for all the carnage due to his thoughtless, vicious killing of the first visitor, is largely abandoned — Cornish’s strength as writer, his affection for his flawed characters, may also be his weakness, as he’s too easy on them.

In terms of the aliens’ design, there are issues… Cornish has decried the over-detailed look of most modern CGI monsters, and he’s right (how ironic that he’s involved ins cripting Spielberg’s forthcoming TINTIN, which looks from previews like a reckless plunge into the Uncanny Valley of hideously-over-textured motion capture ugliness…) and so the idea of “monsters you could actually draw” sounds refreshing. Blacker-than-black outline beasts with glow-in-the-dark fangs sounds fine, but I wish the beasties’ ability to blend with the shadows had been exploited more. And the thick, matted fur may be making things too easy for the prospective fan-artist: even I could draw these things, since the jagged-edge outline robs them of even a clear silhouette. Basically they’re a bit like the star of ROBOT MONSTER but with a dog’s head. In fact, basically they’re exactly like the dog Gnasher in Britain’s Dennis the Menace cartoon strip.

A fuzzy outline filled with menace — that encapsulates why the scifi side of the film, both visually and conceptually, feels underdeveloped compared to the compelling and compassionate view of life in Britain today, which is more switched-on than most of the supposed social-realism of the last several decades. Still, I’m quibbling — this movie is a hell of a lot of fun, confident without being brash, exciting, funny and likable. Since Cornish comes from a similar background to Chris Morris (FOUR LIONS) and Richard Ayoade (SUBMARINE) , we may be seeing something almost unprecedented in British cinema: a reinvigoration of commercial movie-making by TV comedy talent, spearheaded by ATTACK THE BLOCK exec Edgar Wright. There have been some notable failures too (MAGICIANS, BUNNY AND THE BULL), but nobody since Monty Python seems to have managed that transition, so it’s worthy of note.

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11 Responses to “Mayhem and Probs”

  1. Great review. More action films should have pubescent protagonists, in fact, given the ethos, ALL action films should. You’re absolutely right that more could have been made of the aliens in the shadows (although a corridor full of smoke provided my favourite moment) but I didn’t worry so much about the fuzzy outline, in either sense. I assumed it was a nod to the lack of boogey man background in Romero’s zombie films… and I’ll admit I basically just rolled on my back for the design, which was surely based on the original Space Invader, that shaggy glowing-eyed beast on the side of the arcade machine. You know, this fellow:
    http://classic-theology-new.blogspot.com/2009/01/cant-hide-from-god-kids-talk.html
    What with these cats and the demon from Insidious I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a monster-you-can-draw revolution.

  2. WHOOPS! HA! Hang on. Not that original furry space invader. That’s Jesus. Long story. Sorry, I meant this fellow:
    http://www.hipstertees.co.uk/EIGHTEES/SPACEINVADER/SpaceInvadersRWB.gif

  3. You’re right re the definite influence there — no way Cornish was unaware of that one. In a way what’s refreshing about the movie is that it IS a fantasy film that’s more interested in its characters than in the premise.

    Expect more Jesus Invasions this weekend.

  4. snork ! about Dennis the Meance! Yes I think I agree with your point that the Aliens are a bit under imagined but as someone whose genre it isn’t I enjoyed it v much. I hope it gets an audience.

  5. I would love to see Andrea Arnold’s take on a DENNIS THE MENACE movie, perhaps one in which Minnie the Minx features prominently.

  6. I love that idea! Arnold’s a genuine talent, but I don’t share her enthusiasm for so-called “realism” at all. My only possible response is “that’s not real”. So an embrace of caricature or comedy or some form of stylisation or surrealism would be welcome, as far as I’m concerned. Realism is a useful flavour to add, not an end in itself, in my book.

  7. John Seal Says:

    I really liked Bunny and the Bull. Does that mean I WON’T like Attack the Block?

  8. I haven’t seen B&B so I don’t mean to imply that it isn’t good. It didn’t perform well at the box office, is all. I’d quite like to see it sometime. So, no conclusions can be drawn as to whether a liking for one will exclude a liking for the other.

  9. the last few scenes make me think of this essay Their Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack by Paul Gilroyhttp://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/book-review–still-aint-no-black-in-the-union-jack-the-black-atlantic–paul-gilroy-verso-1195-1466777.html

  10. Grand! It’s certainly a strong image they come up with for their climax, redolent with Heavy Symbolism.

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