Close encounters of the chav kind

In the comedy alien invasion movie Attack the Block the real aliens are the hooded human yoof.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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It may be a comedy alien invasion film set on a council estate in south London and directed by Joe Cornish of Adam and Joe fame, but Attack the Block is surprisingly conservative. Think Different Strokes mashed with War of the Worlds and you’ll have the measure of this movie, which combines white middle-class advice for at-sea black kids with monsters from outer space. In fact, the aliens are little more than props, through which the filmmakers explore their own feeling of gaping alienation from a truly weird-looking species which seems to speak its own language: that alien race known as chavs’n’blacks.

The action kicks off with a trainee nurse, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), getting mugged on her way home to her flat on the titular block. Surrounded by hooded youngsters on bikes, she’s forced to hand over her phone, her purse and her ring. But the mugging is rudely interrupted by something arriving in a trail of fire and debris from the night sky. It turns out to be an alien, one which looks less like the big-headed creatures that populate Spielberg’s various forays into alien territory and more like a scarier, hairier version of Gnasher from Dennis the Menace – a choice that I’m sure was inspired as much by the movie’s skinny budget as it was by Cornish’s desire to break the mould of how aliens are depicted.

One of the muggers refers to the creature as an ‘orang-utan ting’, another calls it ‘that alien-wolf-gorilla-motherfucker’, and they abandon the mugged Sam to pursue the beast on their bikes. They corner it and kill it, which is a mistake, because as anyone who has seen E.T. will know, its mates are bound to come looking for it. Cue a storm of fire from the skies as more ‘orang-utan tings’ arrive, invade the block, and do battle with our muggers-turned-potential-saviours-of-mankind – or at least of a council estate somewhere near Oval in south London.

Cornish cleverly plays with the question of who are the real alien invaders: the feckless yoof with their weird lingo (it’s all ‘blud’, ‘tooled up’ and ‘allow it’) who make life a nightmare for the respectable residents of the block, or the furry monsters who arrive from space and start smashing the gaff up. We are invited, as culturally clued-up cinema-goers, to wonder what on earth the youngsters are talking about and to symapthise with Sam when she wonders why her estate has become such a peculiar, threatening place (pre-alien invasion, this is). The sense of a community under siege by a foreign, powerful and inscrutable force is palpable long before all the vengeful Gnashers turn up.

Left to their own devices in the face of an alien invasion (one of the youths advises Sam she’d be better off calling the Ghostbusters than the police), the gang of five teen muggers ends up throwing its lot in with Sam. Together they join forces with a dope dealer who lives on the nineteenth floor (Nick Frost) and his achingly trendy but pathetic middle-class mate Brewis (a brilliant turn by Luke Treadaway) who is 100% Hoxton: tatty jeans tucked into his boots, huge clunky headphones, constantly singing along to the kind of hardcore black music that posh white kids love. This motley crew of modern Londoners plots a weird and frequently funny fightback against aliens who are so gross that, in the words of Frost’s character, ‘it smells like a shit did a shit’.

This slowly reveals the heart of the movie: a blossoming relationship between Sam and Moses (John Boyega), the gang leader who only a few hours earlier had stolen her stuff. It’s purely Platonic, in every sense of the word: Sam starts to sympathise with the permanently grimace-sporting Moses and his social predicament, and he, with the benefit of her Oprah-style backing, starts to realise his moral, even heroic inner core. Nice, yeah – but it also reminded me of the Different Strokes set-up, in which well-off Philip Drummond rescues and socialises black unfortunates Arnold and Willis. Indeed there are many bits in Attack the Block which bring to mind that long and often dodgy cultural tradition of depicting grounded white folk opening the eyes and unfreezing the hearts of wild black youth – an edgier, more comedic version of the recent execrable Sandra Bullock vehicle, The Blind Side.

Once upon a time it was generally the purple-rinse brigade and Tory dames who looked upon young working-class ruffians as an alien threat to the social fabric; today that view is as likely to be found amongst trendy liberals, who feel simultaneously scared of and out-cooled by the face-covered wannabe gangstas haunting inner cities. There’s a therapeutic twist, of course: where the old conservatives saw scary yoof as the product of a warped culture, in Cornish’s view they spring from broken homes and a lack of parental hugging.

Cornish says he was inspired to make Attack the Block after getting mugged by hoodies. ‘You realise what power and strength these kids have’, he said of the boys who accosted him. ‘How they can reduce an adult to dust.’ If Fifties zombie films spoke to a sense of vulnerability in America in relation to those allegedly strange Soviets, Attack the Block reveals something far weirder: adult fear of children, the cultural elite’s estrangement from kids of a different class, who are looked upon almost literally as an alien breed with as much power as an actual ET to reduce fully grown men to nothing. In Sam’s initial fear of the yoof and Brewis’s sad desire to be as cool as them, we can glimpse the dual panic and envy that motors modern-day attitudes to so-called chavs, who are seen both as menacing but also mysterious. Who needs skittish, strange-looking monsters from outer space when we have them right here in our inner cities?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.

Watch the trailer for Attack the Block.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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