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.