Before we got to see FN-2187, a.k.a. Finn, pick up a lightsaber to face off against Kylo Ren (while also wearing Poe Dameron’s jacket), there was Attack the Block.
Before we got to see the Thirteenth Doctor go up against Daleks and the Master in order to protect the universe, there was Attack the Block.
Before John Boyega and Jodie Whittaker would both make their presence felt in two of the most beloved science-fiction franchises of all time, much to the delight of fans and to the fury of Internet trolls who call themselves fans, they appeared onscreen together in writer/director Joe Cornish’s feature-film directorial debut Attack the Block, which opened in theaters here in the U.S. on July 29, 2011.
On Guy Fawkes Night, in the South London area of England, Sam (Whittaker) is heading home from a long day of work as a nurse trainee, and is confronted by a gang of teenagers who threaten her at knifepoint and demand her money and jewelry. While this is happening, a meteorite crashes to the Earth’s surface and lands in a parked car nearby, giving Sam a distraction to run away from her assailants, and for the five teenagers - Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones), Biggz (Simon Howard), and the group’s leader, Moses (Boyega) - to see if there’s anything valuable to be taken from the damaged vehicle. It turns out that the meteorite contained a small but vicious alien who briefly attacks Moses before running away. Moses and his friends run after the alien, and after killing it, decide that their newest discovery could bring them fame and fortune.
Unfortunately, this one alien isn’t the only one to suddenly arrive in their neighborhood, and a dozen more meteorites crash there later that evening, with more aliens that are looking to unleash death and destruction on anyone and everyone who crosses their path. So Moses and friends do what any other kids would do in a dire situation such as this: They arm themselves with lead pipes, katanas, baseball bats, knives, and lots and lots of powerful firecrackers to defend themselves and their block from a possible alien takeover. Even if it means having to reluctantly fight alongside Sam upon realizing that she lives in the same neighborhood that they do.
Like countless other entries in the sci-fi/horror genre, Attack the Block has a lot on its mind and has deeper themes to tackle beneath the surface of its tale about human beings vs. aliens from outer space. For starters, Cornish clearly has no interest in demonizing Moses and his friends like other films (or other people in real life when encountering any diverse group of young people) would do, even though our introduction to them involves seeing them violently ambush a white woman for her possessions. As we spend more time with them, their actual personalities shine through and they all come across as likable, fun-loving, profane, and a bit rowdy, as they tease each other in a way that only close friends do and can get away with. It’s that same camaraderie that helps them all deal with living in poverty, living with family members who are either overly strict or who are barely even home, constantly being harassed and pushed around by the police, believing that the government hates Black people so much that they’re responsible for sending aliens to their block because drugs and guns aren’t doing a fast enough job in killing them off, and even being forcibly recruited by local gangster/aspiring rapper like Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), who is willing to use someone like Moses in order to sell his drugs and increase what little power he has in the block.
Even now, it can be difficult to watch Attack the Block, a film about a tower block and its mostly Black lower-class tenants left to fend for themselves when they’re about to be killed and their homes are about to be destroyed, without thinking of the Grenfell Tower fire that occurred on June 14, 2017, which left seventy-four people dead, dozens injured, and hundreds of people in need of shelter after a refrigerator/freezer malfunctioned and caused the fire to overtake the entire building for nearly three days due to its questionable infrastructure. The investigations into uncovering all details as to how and why this happened are still ongoing to this very day, and many people have pointed out that such a tragic incident would’ve been much less tragic with fewer lives being lost (and possibly never happening to begin with) if the majority of people who lived in Grenfell Tower were white and upper-middle-class as opposed to the many poorer tenants who were Black, Asian, and people of color who called Grenfell Tower home.
All that being said, none of this stops Attack the Block from being funny, scary, exciting, and incredibly entertaining to watch. As we see Moses and his crew running, fighting, hiding, and riding their bicycles and scooters to and away from danger during their deadly confrontations with the aliens (or as they call them, due to their simple but terrifying physical appearance, “big alien gorilla wolf motherf-ckers”), it is all very reminiscent of other classic films with young protagonists, such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Goonies, Cloak & Dagger, The Lost Boys, and BMX Bandits. (If you’ve never heard of that last film, just go to YouTube and watch footage of a very young Nicole Kidman with her very thick Australian accent in a family-friendly ’80s version of The Fast And The Furious, only with BMX bicycles instead of nitro-fueled sports cars.)
The music score by Steven Price and the cinematography by Tom Townend, combined with Cornish’s skillful direction, do an excellent job of making Attack the Block look, feel, and sound like one of John Carpenter’s films while also doing its own thing and not relying on nostalgia to grab the attention of the audience. Despite how rough and dangerous the tower blocks of Wyndham Estates can be and often are for those who live there and do what they can to keep their heads up, it’s still their home and it’s still their community. And with no one else they can count on to protect and defend their block (especially not the police), that leaves Moses, his friends, and Sam to simply do it themselves. (Even Probs and Mayhem, the pint-sized young boys who want nothing more than to be like Moses and his friends and join up with them to raise hell, do their part to protect the block by arming themselves with matches and Super-Soakers loaded with petrol instead of water.) Much like Peanuts and many of John Hughes’ films, there are very few adults who are present onscreen. Other than Sam, the adults we do actually see are either woefully inept authority figures who are either completely absent or have no idea what’s going on (every single parental figure of Moses and his friends) or have very little to contribute, other than making things worse and getting themselves killed (the cops who attempt to arrest Moses; Hi-Hatz and his henchmen; Ron, the perpetually stoned weed dealer who works for Hi-Hatz and is played by Nick Frost), with Brewis (Luke Treadaway) being the sole exception as he helps Moses, Sam, and Pest realize what they want and how they operate. We get to see Moses and his friends running wild, cracking jokes, and doing their own thing before and after the aliens arrive on their doorstep, and having to rely only on each other to solve this problem that they’re partially responsible for.
The entire cast of young actors in Attack the Block all do a fantastic job with their characters in making us care about them while wondering who will survive and what will be left of them, but it’s clear that the breakout performance belonged to Boyega, who made his acting debut as Moses, the quiet but authoritative leader of his group of friends. As the film starts, his main concern appears to be getting money, power, and respect by any means available to him, whether it’s robbing people at knifepoint or agreeing to sell dope for Hi-Hatz (even though Hi-Hatz certainly gives off the impression that he isn’t someone who takes ‘no’ for an answer). But as the story progresses, we learn more about who Moses really is beneath the swagger, and that person is just a boy who is only 15 years old. A boy who is already carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders while living with an uncle who is barely ever home, and who leaves Moses with little to eat and with Spider-Man bedsheets to sleep on that would likely be found in the bedrooms of much younger boys like Probs and Mayhem.
It isn’t until he loses two of his closest friends, and discovers that all of the aliens are tracking him because he is covered in the pheromones of the first alien that he killed, that Moses truly realizes that his actions do have consequences, and how important it is for him to accept responsibility for his actions and do whatever he can to stop the aliens once and for all to protect everyone else in his neighborhood, even at the risk of his own life. It’s incredibly easy to see why Boyega’s career took off after his performance in this film, and the very last shot of him smiling as he hears his name being chanted by all of his neighbors as a sign of appreciation is a perfect note to end it on.
As Sam, Whittaker has the slightly more difficult task of lashing out at Moses and company when they see each other (which makes plenty of sense, as they did just rob her, and they’re equally unhappy about her identifying them to the cops to try and have them all arrested) and refusing to help them until she realizes that all of them are in danger from the aliens, and then slowly becoming friendlier towards them as they learn more about each other and what they’re really like while fighting and evading the aliens together. It’s a role that could easily result in Sam being made to look as if she’s in the wrong for not being immediately forgiving toward Moses and company when the alien attack begins, and also for calling them out as they attempt to apologize for robbing her because they didn’t know that she was one of their neighbors. (“It would’ve been okay to mug me if I didn’t live here? Is that how it works?”) We’ve seen what kind of treatment that female characters like Betty Draper and Lori Grimes and Skyler White receive from fans when they’re viewed as harridans for not being supportive enough of the boys having fun and doing what they want by refusing to tolerate or overlook their bad behavior. Fortunately, for Whittaker and her character, Sam is given equal characterization to make the audience care for her well-being just as much as they do about Moses, Pest, Jerome, Dennis, and Biggz.
Due to the lack of marketing and promotion in the U.S. by film/television production company Screen Gems (possibly because they feared that U.S. audiences wouldn’t support the film due to an inability to understand much of the characters’ dialogue without subtitles, as this was an apparent concern about the film), Attack the Block didn’t perform very well at the box office. However, rave reviews and positive word of mouth from those who were fortunate enough to see it would result in the film becoming a cult classic that grew in popularity once it arrived on DVD/Blu-ray and on cable for more people to discover.
Boyega followed up his role in Attack the Block with roles in the films Junkhearts, Half A Yellow Sun, and Imperial Dreams, as well as television shows such as Law and Order: UK, Becoming Human, and 24: Live Another Day. Whittaker went on to appear in films such as One Day, A Thousand Kisses Deep, Hello Carter, and Journeyman, and in television shows such as Black Mirror, Broadchurch, The Assets, and Trust Me. And then both actors would go on to appear in the biggest roles of their respective careers. In 2014, Boyega played the role of Finn, an ex-Stormtrooper who abandons The First Order in order to fight against them alongside the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and would continue to appear in the other films of the Star Wars sequel trilogy: The Last Jedi and The Rise Of Skywalker. And in 2018, Whittaker made her first appearance as the 13th incarnation (and first female version) of The Doctor on BBC’s Doctor Who.
Both actors dealt with their share of difficulties as a result of these roles. Boyega not only had to deal with racist comments and excessive nitpicking from the toxic members of Star Wars fandom, but also having to deal with personal dissatisfaction at how his role and its importance in the films were seemingly decreased in favor of Rey and Kylo Ren, two white characters played by white actors Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver. And he wasn’t shy about letting people know that he wasn’t satisfied at all with his overall experience making the Star Wars sequel trilogy, how Disney and Lucasfilm treated him and his character, and about how fans would say horrible things about him on social media because of his perceived lack of respect and appreciation for his castmates (particularly Ridley, Driver, and Kelly Marie Tran) and for the Star Wars franchise as a whole.
As for Whittaker, her portrayal of The Doctor was met with misogynistic comments from Doctor Who “fans” who didn’t want to see a woman calling the shots or wielding the Sonic Screwdriver or piloting the TARDIS. And there were also mixed reviews from some critics and some Doctor Who fans with common sense and without f-ckboy/Pick-Me tendencies, who felt that the storylines for Whittaker’s episodes were not nearly as good and as memorable as they could and should be, compared to when actors like David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi were playing The Doctor. So when it was announced by Whittaker that she would be stepping down from the role in the upcoming 13th season after three years as The Doctor, the news was met with much disappointment. Compared to when Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall announced that he too would be stepping down after this upcoming season, which was met with sighs of relief by fans who weren’t entirely pleased with his work and felt that he was largely responsible for the disappointing storylines given to Whittaker in the first place.
Boyega and Whittaker weren’t the only cast members from Attack the Block to appear in a notable sci-fi property, as Franz Drameh, who played Dennis, would appear on The CW series Legends Of Tomorrow for its first three seasons as Jefferson “Jax” Jackson, a.k.a. one half of the superhero, Firestorm, alongside nuclear physicist Martin Stein (Victor Garber), who was the other half.
It was announced this past May that Boyega and writer/director Cornish would be reuniting on a sequel to Attack The Block. For now, the plot remains unknown, but both Boyega and Cornish expressed their excitement.
“It’s been a decade since Attack the Block was released and so much has changed since then,” Boyega said. “I’m excited to see this heightened story return to the streets of London. Moses has remained one of my favourite characters to play and bringing him back is a huge honour.”
Said Cornish: “I’m thrilled we’re officially announcing our return to the world of Attack the Block on the tenth anniversary of the film’s release. I can’t wait to work alongside John again, bringing audiences an even bigger slice of inner-city alien action.”
If you haven’t yet seen Attack The Block … if you want a sci-fi/horror film that has a diverse cast and treats its Black characters respectfully instead of instantly killing them off so that the audience is given reason to worry about the white characters … if you want to see John Boyega and Jodie Whittaker in a sci-fi property that will leave you feeling very satisfied with what they get to do onscreen, then Attack The Block is very much deserving of your time and your attention.
Attack The Block is now streaming on Hulu and on Amazon Prime Video.
Header Image Source: Screen Gems