Block Party: Attack the Block

Editor’s note: spoilers. And If you haven’t figured out why these two movies are being compared this week, here’s why.


If The Vast of Night is a salute to the Spielbergian Americana ideal, then Attack the Block is standing off to one side yelling ‘WANKERRRRR!’ at the same ideal. The two movies are a brilliant pairing, both concerned with the same event from different directions and in very different times and places.

You can even see that in the posters. Vast of Night‘s is full of X-Files spectral blue, it’s leads gazing worriedly out into the night. The direction of their vision is the direction of travel through the image and the movie; out, away. Something more is in their sight and getting closer all the time.

Attack the Block‘s poster couldn’t be more different. For a start look at the different skin tones and body shapes. Then look at the postures. They’re all backed up against the block and, crucially, all lined up behind John Boyega’s Moses. This isn’t a movie about going out into the unknown. This is a movie about the unknown coming for you, glowing teeth first and the only lift in the building doesn’t work.

But the biggest difference between the two is in the cast, in what they want and how they get it. Everett and Fay, in Vast of Night, explore what they are to each other. Attack the Block starts with the rock-solid foundation of Moses and his crew with their neighbour, Sam.

At first glance, they’re exactly what they see when they see each other: the gang see a target instead of Sam. Sam sees a faceless gang of hoodie-wearing violence enthusiasts instead of kids led by an orphan who’s functionally raised himself. Both secure inside their own assumptions and us right there with them.

But nothing is that simple here, except perhaps for the aliens. They’re one of the most interesting similarities between the movies too. Vast’s aliens are a barely glimpsed, distanced force of nature. Attack the Block‘s are up close and personal abstractions of glowing teeth and speed. One takes the characters out into the world, the other just tries to take them out. Both serve as mirrors reflecting the core narratives.

Everett and Fay may be unhappy but they’re not unlucky. Everett is beloved of all and Fay’s unusual family enables and encourages her unusual (for the time) hobbies.

Everyone in Attack the Block is unhappy. Everyone is unlucky too. From Sam the nurse (played by pre-Doctor Who Jodie Whitaker) to the two little kids Moses won’t let join the crew, everyone in the Block wants something they don’t have.

Where Everett and Fay are all-American white teenagers from literal Anytown, USA, Moses’ gang are vastly different from one another. Skin tone, age, approach, family group are all shown to be not only different but vital to the movie’s tone. For example, name another film where a teenager tooling up for an alien war is informed he has to walk the dog first. The movie gets much of its best comedy from scenes like this, whether it’s Biggz hiding in a dumpster from aliens for most of the movie or Jerome’s classic ‘There’s too much madness to fit in one text!’ it never loses sight of its setting or uses it as pastiche window dressing.

In the end, it all leads back to Moses. John Boyega’s star-making turn is initially just what you see: a hat, a mask, a sneer. But as the movie progresses we’re shown how deep and nuanced Moses is. We’re never given an excuse for the petty crime he instigates, but we’re given a full movie of context. Childhood trauma, the economic realities of living in an inner-city tower block and the same sense as Fay of being too big for the place you’re born. But where Fay, at least, has Everett, Moses has no one to be himself with. Just his crew. Just his family: the one he chooses.

That makes the final act of the movie all the more powerful. The invasion is revealed to be an unusually personal one; the majority of the aliens focusing on Moses and the crew because of their early battle with what may be the only alien of a different gender to arrive. The kids are spattered with invisible pheromone,drawing in the relentless creatures. It’s a brilliant piece of plotting because it brings the alien, the domestic, the personal and the real together all under Moses’ cap.

He killed the creature. The block — the one thing he relies on — is being threatened by the direct consequences of his actions. The only actions he feels able to take. If that doesn’t teach you something about the prospects of a young working class black man in the UK you aren’t paying attention.

Everett and Fay get a meet cute and a close encounter.

Moses gets to blow up his childhood home and go to prison.

Attack the Block excels in the clear-eyed way it examines real issues through an action movie conceit. Vast of Night does the same thing of course but — pardon the obvious joke — Block‘s has far more teeth. There’s no saucer romance here, no small town fairytale. Instead there’s a gifted, overlooked young man (‘You look much older’ ‘…thank you’ is one of the best exchanges in the movie) learning what he has to sacrifice so he can defend himself.

Both films center young adults working out how big their world is and what to do with it. Moses, despite where he ends up at the movie’s end, is the only one who seems happy about it.

Attack the Block is available to buy now and is streaming through Amazon Prime. Just like The Vast of Night, so why not make it a double bill. Oh and check out Kartina Richardson‘s brilliant essay on the movie.

This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid . If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.

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