Writer/director Joe Cornish hasn’t made it easy on himself as far as feature film debuts go.
To start with, he’s trying to do a science fiction alien monster movie on a British indie film budget, shooting it in a council estate in South London and hoping that it can look anything like as good as the Hollywood blockbusters of its ilk. That he pulls this off is quite remarkable: at no time do you really feel that this is at all budget-challenged – it’s all polished and stylish throughout and he gives the eponymous block more screen presence and charisma than any cinematic high rise since Die Hard’s Nakatomi Plaza, a really impressive directorial debut with real visual flair and style.
The second burden Cornish gives himself is his selection of protagonists – it’s hard to label them as ‘heroes’ since their first act is to mug a young female nurse at knifepoint, and their second is to sign up as street drug dealers. Both acts are reprehensible and at no time does the film admonish them or require them to see “the error of their ways” as any mainstream (and certainly American) film would do. Instead the film simply unpacks their world view and their sense of honour and ethos: they later apologise to the nurse, saying that if they’d known she was a block resident they would never have attacked her, like that really should make any difference to the morality of the situation but neatly showing the twisted but nonetheless coherent code of conduct they adhere to.
And finally, the film gets laden with too many expectations to be the “next Shaun of the Dead.” Some of these are accidental – Cornish’s background in comedy and radio light entertainment do help set up the expectation – but in other ways the comparison is self-inflicted, such as the casting of that film’s co-star Nick Frost in a supporting role here, and the movie posters topped with “from the producers of Shaun of the Dead“. I guess you have to sell a film any way you can, but ultimately this one does the film more harm than good.
Anyone going in expecting a laugh-a-minute romcom (with monsters) in the style of that earlier British classic is going to be quite badly disappointed: it’s not a comedy. It’s got laughs in it, to be sure, but these arise out of characters and the surreal nature of the events going on around them rather than any concerted attempt to be funny or comedic. Only Frost and his stoned cohort Luke Treadaway (playing a posh whiteboy graduate who just wants some streetgang/black cred) provide anything like authentic comedy beats, and they rather stick out at times as a result. If the sight of nine-year-olds fronting up to face the aliens with a cap gun and a super-squirter, or the gang going into battle against the alien hoards driving the dumbest pizza delivery mopeds ever seen on film don’t strike you as beautifully laugh-out-loud incongruous and silly moments, then there won’t be much here for you. (And watch out for the super-squirter – it has the final say.)
The film’s also been criticised for not having enough action or scares. That’s a shame, and I disagree – I thought it was very nicely judged, with the action not overpowering the characters and leaving room for a full-rounded film rather than the usual blockbuster bombast we have to put up with these days. Again, outright “horror” isn’t its aim – this isn’t Alien by any means – but the film plays a lovely trick with its limited budget by having the monsters be impenetrable blobs of black that can’t really be seen – except for their luminescent teeth, the reveal of which in the dark back-of-frame enables Cornish to have some of his best and most cinematic moments of all when the scale of the infestation and their proximity becomes grippingly clear.
For me, the film really did overcome all those problems it started off carrying. I suspect that for others, the desire for it to be Shaun of the Dead overrode the critical ability to view this as a completely different film seeking to do different things. Where Shaun had romcom, this film has a more serious social commentary heart beating in its genre chest, such as the moment when the gang seriously wonder if the aliens are the authorities’ way of wiping out the black population “because we aren’t killing ourselves fast enough for them” – sharp observation of both how the gangs see the white mainstream society’s attitude toward them while also skewering the too-common self-harming tendencies of some black communities at the same time.
The way this all opens up an “alien culture” of street gangs for a mainstream (and doubtless mainly white) film-going audience is praiseworthy enough. It does this not by having the protagonists repent and be redeemed – that would be too easy – but by having them remain true to themselves but open up their world so that we, the outsiders, can see what they’re really about. It doesn’t forgive them their actions, but it does perhaps facilitate some cross-battlelines understanding.
It’s not a perfect film. The opening half hour spends so much time with the protagonist gang that the cutaways to some of the other characters (the mugged nurse played by Jodie Whittaker; the sisters and girlfriends; Frost and Treadaway’s characters) seem underdeveloped distractions and they really don’t work until their fates are properly intertwined with the gang’s. But once things do cohere then there is some clever pacing and writing which ensures that instead of key character moments being dropped into a “quite moment” where they won’t get in the way like you usually get in action films, the emotional climaxes are instead absolutely intertwined with and essential to the film’s action highlights in a very effective way.
All in all, it’s a film well worth seeing – a definite four stars – but if you go, try and put preconceptions aside and take this as an entirely fresh, different film and not necessarily judge it as the one you thought it was going to be.