When I was leaving ATTACK THE BLOCK I noticed the poster for SUPER 8 hanging outside the theater. I guess it’s pretty obvious, but until I saw that it hadn’t occurred to me that they’re two really different versions of a similar idea: a group of kids save their neighborhood from an alien invasion. In fact, writer/director Joe Cornish says, just like J.J. Abrams did, that he was mostly inspired by the Amblin movies of the ’80s and specifically E.T. (the extra-terrestrial).
That influence is all over the surface of SUPER 8, but ATTACK THE BLOCK has a completely different style. Even though it takes place in modern day London it really makes me think of late ’70s, early ’80s movies about young people in New York City – BEAT STREET, THE WARRIORS, the “Beat It” video. It also put me in mind a little bit of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 over here on the west coast. The score by a gentleman named Basement Jaxx is a hell of alot closer to John Carpenter than John Williams.
SUPER 8 is about middle class, small town kids in the the ’80s, they deal with losing their mothers or not getting along with their fathers, they spend their days working together to make a monster movie. ATTACK THE BLOCK is about poorer kids in a housing project in modern South London, their parents mostly aren’t around if they have them, they spend their nights working together to rob people or work for drug dealers.
Okay, so technically that makes them bad kids, but they’re sympathetic. They do things you hate but you still like them, or you learn to. They’re funny little bastards. In the opening of the movie, when they see an alien, they chase it, kill it and carry the corpse around the neighborhood like it’s something they found and wanted to show everybody. A unicycle, or a box of Playboys. Later, when they’re inside and see more alien meteors crashing around the neighborhood they don’t get scared and hide, they get excited and rush outside to kill some more of them. First they have a mad scramble to their own apartments to get whatever weapons they can find: firecrackers, bats, swords. Not in a panic – it’s more like it started snowing and they’re rushing to get their snow gear so they can go have a snowball fight.
They kind of remind me of the kids in FRESH, actually. Remember Fresh had that friend that was so obsessed with the Punisher? If you were there you’d laugh at some of the things they say and also shake your head because they need to straighten out. But you’d still be laughing.
That’s another thing: I was a little skeptical because people had called this a “horror comedy” and compared it to SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Edgar Wright is executive producer, Cornish is his buddy, and SHAUN co-star Nick Frost is in the cast. SHAUN is a good movie, but this one is more my speed because in my opinion it’s not a comedy, it doesn’t have jokes. It’s a serious story, but the characters are funny, so there are parts where you laugh. But all the laughs come naturally out of the characters and the dramatic situations, they don’t just set up the scenes to get to the jokes.
In the town in SUPER 8 they had the cops trying to help people, they had the military coming in and shutting the place down, trying to take control. In ATTACK it’s more of a Hurricane Katrina situation, they’re on their fuckin own. In fact they gotta worry about the cops coming after them as much as the aliens. And an angry drug dealer too.
Of course, the suburban kids get their story told with a relatively big budget of $50 million, slick visuals and special effects by ILM. ATTACK was done for about $13 million. It intelligently takes advantage of its limitations, confining the story and creating the most unique aliens we’ve seen in forever (furry silhouettes with glowing teeth).
There’s also a difference in the small town vs. projects approach to handling aliens. In SUPER 8 they ultimately decide to understand and relate to the alien even though it’s biting off heads. They realize their people fucked over the alien in the first place. In ATTACK THE BLOCK they sort of started it by accident too, and the guilty party takes responsibility for his actions, but that doesn’t stop our guys from killing the fuckers. (“Gorilla wolf motherfuckers” they call them a couple times. GWMs.) It’s a more brutal approach but more successful. In SUPER 8 I think the filmatists failed to sell the alien as a sympathetic character, here they go the easier route of just making them hungry monsters, so they succeed.
I don’t want to oversell it, it’s not gonna do your laundry for you or pack you a lunch, but I really liked this movie. It’s good, charismatic performances from fresh faces, it’s a unique combination of elements (“Inner City vs. Outer Space,” as the poster says), it’s got some good laughs, some tense moments, some well-staged action, some good atmosphere, good music, clever monster effects. It doesn’t feel like any of the other movies coming out these days – it has its own personality. It leaves some things refreshingly unresolved, not starting or ending in complete safety. I think it even has a little substance in the middle, if you like that sort of thing.
* * *
This movie got me wondering about something in American culture. This is gonna be sort of a tangent but fuck it, nobody’s paying me, or printing me on paper. I got no word limit to worry about.
I got to wondering, what is it about American nerd/geek culture that causes so many of its practicioners to be fascinated by everything British? Right now it’s Dr. Who, Torchwood, Simon Pegg, Ricky Gervais, Sherlock, maybe some other stuff. I’m not saying that’s not good stuff or that they don’t genuinely love it, but I believe there’s more to it than that. I mean, these same people aren’t digging up French sci-fi or Swedish comedy, it’s specifically a fascination with the U.K. And if you’re around them long enough they’ll dabble in accents and slang. They’ll even say “shite” sometimes, even though obviously the word is “shit.” Or they’ll say “wankers” or “cunt” even though in America “cunt” is a horrible thing to say. But “fannypack” is okay.
I don’t know if you guys in other countries know this, and maybe I’m not supposed to reveal it, but we Americans have a thing about British accents. We tend to think any British person is smarter than us just because of the accent. Anybody. Even Jason Statham. Maybe not Vinnie Jones. But maybe Vinnie Jones. So I think that adds an extra cache for some of these people, they think British shit = smart shit. And if by chance it really is smart then they think it’s double-smart because of the accent. Geeks/nerds are smart people, or they believe they are smart people. Since the British shit isn’t playing on NBC they feel like it’s some special smart shit they had to search for, those dumb people around them would never appreciate it even if they knew about it, which they don’t. The wankers.
But what I was thinking was meanwhile there’s this completely separate phenomenon of the white kids from the suburbs who are fascinated by black, inner city culture. When you say that it usually it has a bad connotation, like the white kids in question are phonies, but that’s not what I’m saying. I think it’s natural. These kids grew up on E.T. and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK like everybody else, but also breakdancing movies and Michael Jackson and then graduated to Run DMC and then Ice-T and on from there. To a white middle class kid in the late ’80s there was an exoticness to N.W.A. like there is now to Doctor Who. You are now about to witness that strength of Brit knowledge.
There’s even kind of a joke about this in ATTACK THE BLOCK. You hear KRS-One’s “Sound of the Police” on the soundtrack. You see these boots walking along. You see headphones, you realize this guy is listening to the song on his iPod. Then you see the guy and he’s a dorky white kid, and he’s enthusiastically rapping along to this song that compares “officers” to “overseers” in the days of slavery.
But why not? Of course he loves that song. It’s a great song! True, his reason to hate cops is because he’s carrying weed, not because of hundreds of years of racist institutions. But he hears what it’s saying, maybe he understands it, maybe he learns from it. It’s a funny moment in the movie but I saw it as kind of affectionate toward this kid’s passion, not ridiculing him.
There’s no racial divide in ATTACK THE BLOCK, only a class one. The white kids use the same slang as the black kids because they grew up together, are currently growing up together, go to the same school. There’s no border between them. The breakdancing and graffiti movies in the ’80s were the same, they had black kids and Hispanic kids and white kids together, there was no reason not to. If suburban kids showed up they may or may not be accepted. They might try too hard. They might fake an accent. It’s hard to say. They’d probly do okay, like the KRS-One kid in this one. They just have to get to know each other and everything will be fine.
The white lady in the movie is targeted not because she’s a white lady, but because they thought she was an upper class lady from somewhere else. They regret what they did to her after they realize she’s a nurse and probly doesn’t make much money, and after they get to know her. Moses tells her he wouldn’t have robbed her if he knew she lived in the neighborhood. It’s a terrible excuse but also an acknowledgment that by living there she’s one of them.
But back to the suburban kid’s fascination with black people from the city. It’s not that different from the nerd wanting to dress up like Doctor Who. (Who wears a scarf, I believe. I’m against it, unless it’s really cold. Not sure what’s up with men today and their delicate necks.) Both are looking to a place that seems far away, that they know from TV and movies, a place where they didn’t grow up but that seems interesting to them. So they’re kind of the same sort of interest. But there’s not much overlap between those groups, is there? How many people are really into both Red Dwarf and Wu-Tang Clan? There’s gotta be people, because this is a big fuckin world, and people can’t always be put into boxes. But I never met somebody like that and don’t expect to soon.
White hip hop kids, with the exception of the character McLovin, are not generally seen as “geeks.” Of course there’s the stereotype of the “guy who thinks he’s a black,” a common type of buffoon in comedies. But if you’re geeky about hip hop history, if you compile a blog about every sample or reference used by Mobb Deep or whatever, you’re not gonna be called a nerd, are you? You’re pretty cool. There is a whole world out there of hip hop academics and encyclopedic crate diggers. Their passion is every bit as detail oriented and niche as what any nerds are into, but in my brain I can not possibly see it as being the same as live action role playing or building your own costumes of your favorite video game characters. One is cool, one is dorky. Why is that?
If you accept my premise of these as two different categories, the American Obsessed With British Shit and the White Suburban Kid Fascinated By Black Culture, would you agree with me that ATTACK THE BLOCK is the first movie that strongly appeals to both groups? It’s a hood movie, a non-judgmental, fairly authentic feeling portrait of kids in the projects. It has that KRS-One song (I wonder if the kid actually had Return of the Boom-Bap on his iPod, or did he get it from the COP OUT soundtrack?) and reggae, none of your usual sad/angry white people playing guitar. It has some girls singing a Lauryn Hill song (I mean I’m guessing it’s the Lauryn Hill version they know it from, not the Delfonics).
It’s got all that, but also it’s British, it’s got the guy from SHAUN OF THE DEAD in it, it’s produced by Edgar Wright, it’s science fiction, and all the same “movie geek” writers on the web who lost their shit over SCOTT PILGRIM and KICK ASS are weaving a thick cocoon of hyberbole around this one too, trying to promote it like it’s a cause, telling people to support its theatrical release.
And I think that might be groundbreaking, because when have “geeks” ever worshiped a movie with a black hero, or even an urban one? I can’t think of a single one. I’m not saying they’re racist, I’m just saying they tend to relate to certain types of characters and it’s not the ones in MENACE II SOCIETY or even ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, it’s super heroes or quiet underdog kids or put-upon wisecracking dudes. Many of them are suspicious of rappers or black comedians the way they are of “hipsters.” Like Republican pundits they’re so clueless about it that when Common (from the Gap commercials) was cast in the never-made JUSTICE LEAGUE movie the Ain’t It Cool talkbackers criticized him as a “gangster.” It’s partly a race issue, partly just a social one. They hang onto these dumb categories from high school to stereotype people by their primary music interests or the type of clothes they wear, shitting all over a movie if they detect “hipster” or “emo” or “gangster” on it.
You could argue that these guys loving ATTACK THE BLOCK is not progress, because why not show them “positive” black characters, ones who are not criminals, who do not fit into a stereotype? It’s more white filmatists telling black kids to be cool stay in school. “Hey guys, you need to straighten out your community. Your actions are only hurting you.” Yeah, it’s that, but I don’t see any preachiness or condescension in it. It’s all empathy. The audience is clearly with the kids. Maybe some of us are closer to the white lady in our own lives, but we see the movie through the eyes of the kids and we see her slowly come to understand where they’re coming from at the same time they start to understand her.
I mean this. If some of the people who have that limited white “geek” world view fall in love with a movie where they have to sympathize with kids from the projects, kids who have resorted to petty crime, kids who have very different background and experiences from them, that is a good thing. Through the miracle of British accents they’re tricked into experiencing the identification those other kids had while watching JUICE and BOYZ N THE HOOD and FRIDAY. They get to see things from a different perspective, from inside the apartment with the scary bass vibrating out of it. That’s sort of what the movie’s all about, I think: the muggers getting to know the victim, the victim getting to know the muggers, both of them making peace and becoming better people in some way. And killing GWMs.
If the movie really works that way it could expand some minds and help inch us ever so slightly toward a better world where people care about each other. I really believe that. If not, it’s still a cool alien invasion movie.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.