This Friday was a big day for sci-fi, far as I was concerned. Today meant the release of the sci-fi action movie I’ve been waiting ages for. How excited am I about this movie? It’s almost 2 am as I’m finishing this review for what I feel is the best sci-fi movie of the summer. And no, I’m not talking about Cowboys & Aliens.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve heard nothing but lovely stuff about Cowboys & Aliens. And as a fan of westerns and all the big name actors involved (Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde to name three), I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. And boy howdy does it look slick. Then again, it has an estimated budget of $100 million. Adds are everywhere and the stars are hitting the talk show circuit. And, I’ll be honest with you, I was starting to get tired hearing about the movie weeks ago.
Then we have Attack the Block, made for what I hear to be approximately $5.5 million. The biggest star they have is Nick Frost, and I would wager that he’s only involved in the movie to help secure financing. His role in the movie, while structurally important, is relatively minor. The real stars of the movie are kids you have never seen before, plucked from the council estates of South London where the movie is set. By grounding this movie in a very real, very gritty place, writer/director Joe Cornish has done the impossible. He made the best alien invasion movie of the year, hands down. And at a fraction of the cost of the other studios.
There are few things that set the two movies apart on a much more important level than mere budget. And for me, the devil is always in the details.
Cowboys & Aliens was a little independent comic book which the cynical part of me suspects was only really produced to sell the screenplay / IP option to Hollywood. The inspiration for Attack the Block is quite different. Joe Cornish grew up in that neighborhood of London. One night he was mugged, not unlike the opening to his movie. But what stuck with him was that the kids who mugged him were just as afraid as he was, and this prompted him to learn more about the lives of the young street gangs in his neighborhood. This may seem like a weird quibble, but to me, it speaks to the heart of the project.
This is somewhat of a big thing for me these days. And Cowboys & Aliens does a better job than most movies at making things a bit more diverse. Olivia Wilde kicks some ass, and I’ve been reading that Adam Beach is a massive scene-stealer. As a fan of Beach going back to the Sherman Alexie movie Smoke Signals, it’s great to see him getting the love. But the two heroes of Cowboys & Aliens are still Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig. The hero of Attack the Block is the fifteen-year old thug Moses, played by John Boyega. This is his first movie, and he fucking OWNS it. I can’t wait to see his next movie, Junkhearts, and I don’t even know what it’s about yet.
But here’s the even bigger step for diversity in Attack the Block: it isn’t really about race at all, despite the diverse cast. The gang had a range of ethnicity. Instead this movie deals with perception of class divides that transcend racial boundaries. Additionally, in several instances, the female characters prove just as capable as the boys, so the whole thing became strangely egalitarian. Even 10-yr olds Mayhem and Prob get in on the heroics.
I won’t say that Attack the Block is without flaws, but these are largely flaws that are easily forgivable within the genre. The biggest one is convenience factor of having the right people around with the skills and knowledge needed to resolve the threat. Also, this movie is steeped in the language of the council estates in South London. The dialect is thick, as is the use of slang. When people start to get panicked, as happens in these circumstances, you’re going to lose some of the nuance of the dialogue. It doesn’t matter. You’ll learn a few new words and phrases, and you’ll understand more than enough to keep up. This should by no means detract from what is a rock-and-roll good time full of palpable menace. The aliens were cleverly designed to be made inexpensively without looking cheap, and the design was innovative (no eyes, but glowing blue teeth…rows of the buggers). And there were a few action set pieces that blew me away…the race to get back into the building, an elevator scene that (despite happening off camera) is outstanding, as is the whole climax sequence. It’s difficult to imagine this was made for as little money as it was.
But at the heart of the matter, my favorite thing about the movie was the growth of the characters. The events of the movie forge a feeling of community. There is no feeling of flag-waving patriotism typical in recent us vs. them alien films. These kids see themselves as thugs and criminals and have become such, quite possibly, because that is what is expected of them. Why try and do the right thing when you’re going to be blamed for things for which you aren’t responsible? These are kids that have been cast adrift, looking for something that isn’t there–a sense of belonging to something bigger. That’s the same hook that gangs all over the world exploit. But despite starting out as a very unsympathetic thug, Moses grows. The events change him, steel his resolve, but most importantly, teach him that his actions have consequences. When he starts to question his responsibility for the chaos, Attack the Block finds its heart.
If you see one sci-fi movie this weekend, and Attack the Block is showing anywhere around you pay full ticket price and go see it. And if you see two sci-fi movies, I hear Cowboys & Aliens is pretty good too. And they have a lot more money to make up at the box office to see a profit.
Review edited slightly for clarity but not this morning. The drawback of writing a review at 2 am is the enthusiastic fuzziness of my writing.