Stars aren’t born, they’re made. Though it occasionally happens that an actor’s first-ever role is the one that catapults them to the top of Hollywood’s A-list, actors more frequently deliver strong work for years before the film industry takes notice.
For John Boyega, whose breakthrough came when he played Finn across the Star Wars sequel trilogy, one role in a 2011 sci-fi horror-comedy made all the difference.
Meanwhile, Jodie Whittaker, now the Thirteenth Doctor on the long-running British sci-fi series Doctor Who, came to the attention of that series’ showrunner thanks to her work on far smaller-scale projects, like the crime procedural Broadchurch and — coincidentally — the very same cult favorite that marked Boyega’s big-screen debut.
Alien invasions come in all shapes and sizes, but it takes a special movie to pull off a thrilling sci-fi story while focusing enough on character work and intelligent storytelling to offer star-making roles to its actors. 2011’s Attack the Block, written and directed by Joe Cornish, is such a film.
Here’s why you need to see this exceptional sci-fi cult classic now that it’s streaming on Amazon Prime.
As Attack the Block opens, fireworks over London obscure the descent of a mysterious object falling out of the sky. On her way home from work, nurse Samantha (Whittaker) is more pressingly concerned with a gang of teenagers from her South London council estate, led by Moses (Boyega), who set upon her and demand she fork over valuables. But when said object crash-lands next to this encounter, Moses lets Sam escape and instead investigates. Soon, the gang discovers an alien and abruptly beats it to death.
Of course, this display of youthful aggression is cut short as more invaders fall from the sky: these ones furry and black as night, with glow-in-the-dark fangs. As Moses and his friends — including the jovial pyromaniac Pest (Alex Esmail), impulsive Dennis (Franz Drameh), level-headed Jerome (Leeon Jones), and ingenuous Biggz (Simon Howard) — find themselves on the run from a growing swarm of extraterrestrial creatures, they retreat into their low-income apartment complex.
Allying themselves with a reluctant but equally imperiled Sam, as well as dim-witted rich kid Brewis (Luke Treadaway) and local drug dealer Ron (Nick Frost), the teenagers take up arms against the aliens — even as gangsters and racist police officers in the neighborhood seem equally threatening.
Energetic, scary, and hilarious, Attack the Block is a crowd-pleaser in every sense. It draws much of its heart and humor from the dynamics between its protagonists, whose scrappy antagonism gives way to a softer, more authentic desire to protect their own — as well as occasional, astonishing acts of bravery. Just as we gradually learn to grasp the thick Multicultural London English slang spoken by the characters, so too do we only eventually glimpse the deeper innocence of these characters.
The hero of the hour, Boyega’s Moses is an especially brilliant creation: stoic, courageous, and ultimately the most sympathetic character on screen, as the film’s third act reveals the extent to which he’s a product of his environment. Making his debut in Attack the Block, Boyega feels every bit like the star he’d later become.
Directed by Joe Cornish, Attack the Block counts British filmmaker Edgar Wright among its producers, and it bears tonal similarities to Wright’s comical, high-energy romps, from the gleefully blood-soaked Three Cornettos Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End) to hyper-stylized comic-book adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and heist caper Baby Driver. But whereas Wright’s films wear their constructions as genre exercises on their sleeves, Cornish delivers something more serious and sincere with Attack the Block.
Working at a more modest scale than Wright, Cornish’s films — also including family-oriented Arthurian fantasy The Kid Who Would Be King — channel a spine-tingling, suburbs-gone-strange vibe. His work is indebted to ‘80s classics, like Richard Donner’s The Goonies and Joe Dante’s Gremlins, aimed at the generation of younger teenagers who’d make a beeline to the horror section of their local video stores. Attack the Block fits best into that mold with how it flies through moments of tension and gore with the same impetuous, devil-may-care energy evinced by its young protagonists.
And yet, Attack the Block isn’t cursory in its view of race relations, wealth disparity, and national identity. All this social critique is just so naturally integrated into the story that it doesn’t reveal itself until the credits roll. Consider how Boyega’s performance as Moses evolves throughout. Introduced as a menacing figure on the street who mugs a young woman, Moses is gradually contextualized within the narrowed conditions of his neighborhood, as we meet the predatory gangsters lying in wait — like the deranged Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) — and white police officers itching to take in Black teens they assume are responsible for the evening’s ruckus.
By treating Moses’ circumstances as an extension of the setting, and focusing on his heroic efforts to prevent extraterrestrial-induced carnage well beyond his block, Attack the Block makes a powerful statement about the plight of its characters and their inner decency.
All the while, Cornish’s story stays rooted in action. Attack the Block’s finale is its greatest triumph, filled with electrifying, intellectually satisfying compositions (Boyega flees down a hallway, samurai sword in hand, monsters on his heels. Later, he hangs off a balcony, gripping the Union Jack for dear life, lit by a police helicopter’s searchlight) that the film earns through diligent character work and world-building.
Attack the Block was released on DVD/Blu-Ray after a limited theatrical bow in the United States that lasted two months. Distributors feared that the inner-city slang spoken by its characters would be difficult for American audiences to understand. There was even discussion of releasing a subtitled version.
This feels like overkill, and Attack the Block was rapturously received by a U.S. crowd South by Southwest where it won an Audience Award.
Still, Attack the Block’s truncated theatrical run outside of its native U.K. surely contributed to its reputation as a cult film. And given that it served as a launchpad for Boyega and Whittaker, two of the biggest actors working in science-fiction right now, the film’s appearance on streaming seems likely to bring it a massive new audience.
Cornish and Boyega are banking on this. Earlier this summer, news broke that a sequel to the film is moving forward, with both returning. For a follow-up to get the greenlight 10 years after Attack the Block first premiered speaks to what a beloved sci-fi gem the film has become.
Attack the Block is currently streaming on Amazon Prime in the U.S.