We are long overdue for this generation’s answer to The Goonies. The classic story of a group of kids who go on an adventure (whether supernaturally oriented or otherwise) and are faced with an amazing challenge that Adults Just Don’t Get is a must for every kid to experience. The ’80s — once Hollywood realised post-Star Wars that kids could make them millions of dollars too — was a ripe decade for these kinds of films. The aforementioned The Goonies, Monster Squad, ET, and even the more serious Stand By Me are the cream of the crop, and the ’90s and ’00s had a few that though they may not be instant classics, were fairly enjoyable and successful at the box-office (Spy Kids, Holes, Monster House and Jumanji are a few examples).
I watched Attack the Block recently, a film I had been looking forward to ever since hearing about it. It really did seem like this might just be the film that I was waiting for. The trailer promised a bunch of wiseguy kids racing around on bikes, cracking jokes and getting up to mischief and fun, while defending their high-rise home from an alien attack. This got me to thinking — is Attack the Block our long-awaited saviour, the answer to our Kids Adventure dreams, the movie that the youth of 2011 will look back on in ten or twenty years’ time and say “I LOVED that movie when I was growing up!”? Well, we’ll see about that in a bit.
The film begins with nurse Sam (Jodie Whitaker) who is walking home in South London one night when she is mugged by a gang of youths. Not content to just lay down and take the insult, Sam reports the incident to the local police later that night. Meanwhile, the kids happen upon an object that falls smouldering from the skies. They get their hands on — then proceed to bludgeon to death — an alien being, and drag it over to their flat building, to Ron’s Weed Room (“It’s a big room. Full of weed. And it’s Ron’s.”) to get some advice. But things really start to heat up when Sam ID’s the kids, and the cops proceed to bust them — just as more aliens start to cascade from the heavens in bright, meteor-like explosions. And then start to give chase.
Attack the Block has a great script, no doubts about it. It’s got infectious, snappy dialogue, which is delivered whiplash fast by the kids in a very convincing and natural way. The way they speak is spot on and there are enough innits, bruvs and allow-its to make sure you never forget when and where exactly this is taking place. That dialogue is one of the film’s strongest points, and the characters come off just like regular kids instead of child movie stars. Comprised of mostly amateurs, the cast still feel fairly rough around the edges, but in a good way. John Boyega as group-leader Moses, and Alex Esmail as comic relief Pest, were the two stand-outs for me. Boyega delivers a solid performance that’s intense and slightly heartbreaking at the same time — Moses is a 15-year old who seems destined to grow up to become part of the local drug ring, and his journey through the night from young hoodlum to becoming the story’s hero is another of the film’s strengths. As for the other standout, Esmail livens up any scene he’s in, and his character Pest is an endearing little punk with natural charm. Though he might not have a big character arch like Moses, Esmail provides the film with some of the heart and laughs that at times felt like there weren’t enough of. The other kids do good jobs too, and it’s a real testament to the brave script (and a surprise, let me tell you) that not every kid harmlessly makes it to the end of the film with only a scratch and a few bumps.
The slight letdown for me were a couple aspects of the plot. Apart from the positives I mentioned previously, there are a few action scenes that are definitely cool, namely the requisite Tool Up scene at the beginning (I love a good Tool Up scene), a bike chase, and a few fights at the Block (the scene with the smoke possibly my favourite). The scenes with the kids’ back-and-forth talk are all pretty solid too, and the general storyline of Kids vs Aliens is intriguing. So I don’t know if my reservations are for the weird concept of the aliens that I don’t 100% buy into (their reason for coming to Earth, and the way the kids figure it out), or the subplot involving the main local drug thug wanting revenge or some rubbish. Maybe it’s even a combination of the two, which change the nature and theme of the film, taking it to some dark places that seem out of place in a kids movie. Those dark undertones somehow feel like a downfall and a saving grace all at once. On the one hand, it’s good to have a kids film that has serious issues, and that their world isn’t all peaches and cream. These kids live in a world where drugs are commonplace, where they rob a girl at knifepoint, and the killing isn’t done just by aliens — humans kill humans too.
To be fair, the other ’80s movies I mentioned earlier all had serious issues as well. The Goonies kids’ families are getting evicted from their homes, but when they find the treasure all their problems are solved. The Monster Squad kids have to face a legion of famous monsters who intend to take over the world — but really, how serious is that? Especially when the solution to defeat said monsters is for a virgin girl to read a passage in German from (conveniently found! In the United States!) Van Helsing’s diary. The siblings in ET have to deal with getting an alien back to his mothership. Again, hard to take seriously (well, depending on your opinions on other lifeforms in our universe I suppose…), and even with the involvement of the US Government and one sob-worthy powdered alien later, the saving grace comes in the form of an intergalactic telephone made from a spelling toy hooked up to an umbrella. Stand By Me might be the only exception, with kids who have real-world dysfuntctional families, or grow up to get killed in a fast food restaurant, so it could be the exception to the rule. But mostly, because of the way these types of films are presented, they don’t really feel all that serious. In Attack the Block, the kids may have to fight off aliens, but after that they have to go back to their regular lives. They still live in a South London council estate, and their inner-city financial or cultural problems are still there waiting for them.
On the other hand, sometimes those serious themes weighed the film down. One of the reasons that a lot of Kids Adventure films are so successful (and this is a reason for films in general as well) is that they are fun and light-hearted, and provide an escape for the audience to experience happiness and laughter, sadness and fear, tension and then finally relief, before going back to their everyday world. When a film has a higher propensity towards sadness, fear and tension, its chances of making an impact — at the box-office and in the audience’s heart — is lower. I’m not saying that sad or “real” films don’t make an impact, of course not. But for kids movies at least, it’s fairly applicable. Let’s be honest, when you look fondly back on the films you loved as a kid, chances are they didn’t make you cry (OK, except maybe ET). Based purely on a comparison to other kids films though, Attack the Block could’ve done with a bit more levity. More jokes, less dead people, you know.
But maybe that’s my mistake, in looking at Attack the Block as a kids film, when it shouldn’t be. Those kids aren’t really kids — they’re teenagers. And with teenagers, unless you’re making a fluffy High School Musical, serious issues are usually the order of the day. So I could most definitely be going about this the wrong way. By trying to look at the film in camparison to kids films, in particular those awesome Kids Adventure films that we look back on with misty eyes, am I being unfair to a film that is potentially awesome, full-stop? Possibly. As I pass judgement on the film, I think I have to get over the fact that this isn’t following in The Goonies footsteps. Though at first glance they might seem like a similar type of film, Attack the Block follows more of a mature Science-Fiction path. So instead of worrying about where this film sits in the Kids Adventure Hall of Fame, I need to consider this film for Awesome Science-Fiction Hall of Fame .
The problem I realise now when I think to myself “Will kids after the ’80s ever get their own Goonies?” is that kids nowadays will have an entirely different kind of film that they will look fondly back on in ten or twenty years time and say “I LOVED that movie when I was growing up!” and it’s both unfair and unrealistic to judge any film against The Goonies. Not because it’s The Best Movie Ever Made and Nothing Will Live Up To It, but more the fact (at least, I hope so) that The Goonies didn’t set out to be the movie of its generation. You can’t really say something is a classic at the time of its creation, and so, how can you objectively say which recent film is the film of this generation? I guess we’ll only be able to answer this one way — by looking back on the films of this time to see which ones truly left an impact.
I think Super 8 really tried to be. It seemed to tick all the right boxes — awesome creators, mostly unknown kids, an aptly mysterious source of peril, and even some ’70s nostalgia thrown in for good measure — but it just seemed to lack some indefinable magic that ended up making the film merely enjoyable instead of excitingly awesome for me. Super 8 felt like it was trying too hard to capture that spirit, and in the end I think it kind of failed. For those of you who liked this film, no matter how much you enjoyed it, I really don’t see it getting “classic” status in a decade or two. Kids want to see kids like themselves on the big screen, so chances are this generation’s The Goonies won’t be set 30-plus years ago, with (arguably) dying technology being a main focal point of the film. I suppose you could make a case for the behemoth that is Harry Potter, but I just don’t think it’s fair to compare a whole series spanning eight fantastic installments against one film. Though the Harry Potter films will definitely live on in kids’ (and adults’) memories for years to come, being such a phenomenon gives it an unfair advantage. Who knows — I very well could be wrong. In our age of sequels and prequels, trilogies and more, the defining film of this generation might not be just one film. Series could be the way of the future.
As is usually the case, my post (or my opinion) has mutated into something completely different from what I intended it to be. Not only have I not really answered my own question, I’ve contradicted myself a few times, and delivered a film-review-slash-comparison-thing instead of a proper discussion piece. Just know this — Attack the Block might not be the defining film of this generation, but it’s most definitely a highly entertaining film that’s fresh, fun, engaging and unique. Believe it.
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