It really shouldn’t come as a surprise to see Joe Cornish take to film directing like a duck to wotsit. After all, this is a guy who’s been unerringly excellent at pretty much everything he’s turned his hand to over the years, from his TV shows with his long-term cohort Adam Buxton, to the marvellously dotty Song Wars (from his radio show with Buxton), to his screenplay work with Edgar Wright, which has gained the stamp of approval from Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and the chaps at Marvel. Even his voiceover work on the landmark 2006 TV show, Orange & Empire At The Movies, is nothing short of seminal (and has had absolutely no bearing on this review, we assure you).
Mind you, the step up to feature film-directing is a huge one to make. There’s a world of difference between recreating classic feature films with teddy bears and directing actual live actors. And yet, Cornish’s Attack The Block is a wonderful slice of sci-fi, and a debut that is as confident as any we’ve seen in years.
There will be lots of lazy comparisons with Shaun Of The Dead, taking into consideration the Edgar Wright link (he’s executive producer). On one level, that’s justified — we’ll be throwing in our own lazy comparison later — but like Belloq in Raiders, people seeking to lump Shaun and Block together are digging in the wrong place. For Attack The Block is really the best movie John Carpenter never made.
From the off, as an ominous, insistent bassline that recalls the best of Carpenter’s scores soundtracks an increasingly skittish Jodie Whittaker’s walk home through busy London streets, Cornish sets his stall out. This is a straight-up, and genuinely ambitious, action thriller that takes its cue from Carpenter’s best movies, combining the siege movie mindset of Assault On Precinct 13 with the grimy sci-fi edge of, say, Escape From New York. His handling of the film’s action set-pieces, with one minor fumble, is excellent, with one extended sequence — in which our hooded heroes use any means of transport they can get their hands on in order to escape to the titular tower block — particularly exciting and never ostentatious.
His masterstroke, though, is in transplanting such decidedly American tropes to a landscape that could only be British, with a cast of heroes it’s fair to say qualify as unlikely. Over the past few years — thanks largely to the Daily Mail, but also flicks like Eden Lake, Harry Brown and F — hoodies have become demonised as evil little bastards, the sort who hang outside your local Costcutter and get all stabby when you’re trying to buy some Sprite.
Interestingly, that’s where Cornish starts, with his motley crew robbing Whittaker’s Sam in the opening minutes, a terrifying vision swathed in black, with only their eyes visible. But, as the first of the alien meteors hits, Cornish doesn’t follow the panic-stricken nurse as she runs off, but stays with the gang, as their leader Moses (John Boyega, the strong and silent core of the film) takes on the toothy terror and kills it. And a curious≈thing happens: as we spend time with the≈gang, we begin to like them, to realise that they’re just scared, bored kids doing their best to get along in the harsh world of the tower block, an unforgiving society in microcosm.
Cornish spent a year researching South London youth culture before writing the screenplay and it shows — there’s an absolute authenticity to the way these kids, all virtual first-timers, giving fantastic turns, walk and talk. And boy, how they talk, at first in incomprehensible splatters of speech that may as well be Klingon, but Cornish cleverly dots the same words — bruv, the ends, truth, believe, merk this, bare that, ghost the other — throughout the movie, letting context define their meaning. By the end, you’ll not only be able to keep up, you’ll be quoting them. Trust.
Given Cornish’s background, laughs are never far away — particularly when Alex Esmail’s motormouthed Pest or Luke Treadaway’s dope-addled Brewis are on screen — but it’s important to realise that Attack The Block is not a comedy. In fact, it becomes increasingly dark as it reaches the finishing line, with a couple of shocking deaths courtesy of the monstrous aliens raising the stakes.
In a cinematic landscape littered with aliens that all look the same, Cornish’s creatures are bold and memorable creations, jet-black and ferocious gorilla-wolves with luminescent teeth and claws, savaging characters in scenes that recall An American Werewolf In London. Occasionally, the budget bites — there are several scenes where characters simply run away from a threat you sense there wasn’t enough cash to show. And Cornish’s inexperience does sometimes show — a set-piece in a gloomy corridor does too good a job of confusing both characters and audience. But these are minor quibbles in a film that’s smart, commercial, original and, particularly in an outstanding slo-mo climax, unashamedly cinematic.