Hey, check it all out
Baby, I know what it’s all about
Before the night is through
You will see my point of view
Even if I have to scream and shout
– Prince, “Baby I’m a Star”
In the very first piece I ever wrote for the IU Cinema blog, I wrote about the speculative elements of the imagined dystopian future that John Carpenter’s Escape from New York took place in. I highlighted a simple concept that is the fuel that drives the sci-fi engine: the concept of “what if?” It’s the question artists, thinkers, and creatives have been asking themselves for decades and centuries to come up with some of the most innovative and far-reaching stories that have helped shaped the world we live in today. The concept itself has the implication that you are taking something or some event from present day and are extrapolating on the concept with some sort of wrinkle to have it ring out with social resonance.
Take for instance Star Wars (or Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope if you’re a poser), a movie that’s not just simply “what if wizards and World War II imagery but space?” but a rather pointed “what if in the Vietnam War the Vietcong were the rebellious heroes and the Americans were the intrusively oppressive Empire?” It’s certainly an incisive take to cleverly dress up with sassy robots and laser swords, but one so squarely in the zeitgeist in the mid to late ’70s. Better yet, the more recent film Arrival tackled the “what if ” concept by spinning out from the basic “what if we made contact with aliens?” and instead asking “what if we made contact with aliens and the only person on Earth capable of communicating with them was a grieving woman?” It takes the spark of the idea and infuses it with something that often gets lost in the “what if?” scenario: the point of view.
It’s easy to create imagined futures or tilted fantastical presents but sometimes the questions being asked in these stories are ones that require more than idea and some cursory knowledge but some actual perspective, experience, or empathy to have the conceit of what you’re trying to create ring true. In 2011, director, writer and producer Joe Cornish was up for such a challenge when he unleashed the unabashed sci-fi masterpiece Attack the Block upon the world.
The premise of Attack the Block is B-movie simple. Under the cover of a fireworks display a vicious, primal alien lands in a housing project in South London populated by a gang of kids, who are fresh off of mugging a lone woman named Sam (future Doctor of Doctor Who, Jodie Whittaker) in the dead of night. When the leader of the gang, Moses (played by the then-unknown John Boyega) decides he wants to kick the visitor from another world’s teeth in, it leads to an even bigger invasion of even scarier aliens (the best modern creature design of the decade) to come raining down on the block, all the while local crime lord Hi-Hatz chases the kids down for drawing attention to his operation. These rowdy, rough hoodies are now this neighborhood’s and perhaps planet Earth’s first line of defense.
It’s a movie and a premise inspired by the likes of Walter Hill’s The Warriors, John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, Joe Dante’s Gremlins, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and of course Steven Spielberg’s E.T. However, unlike the Super 8’s and Stranger Things of the world, Joe Cornish and Attack the Block are less interested in regurgitating the stylization and tone deaf nostalgia of the ’80s (the ’80s weren’t good for every child and it wasn’t nearly as squeaky clean as we remember and imagine it to be) and more interested in taking the stories about very flawed but sympathetic characters with complicated racial and sociological backgrounds and putting them in the pressure cooker with hope of peeling back layers along the way.
The movie itself is inspired by a mugging that occurred to Cornish in a neighborhood he was living in that’s similar to the one depicted in the film. As the mugging occurred he thought to himself “what if an alien showed up at this very moment?” and from there the movie was born.
In the wrong hands Moses and company could have come off as two-dimensional punchlines, black and poor youths slingin’ slang and tripping over themselves to get away from the very real threat surrounding them, but that’s not Cornish’s M.O. He wants to walk the audience right up to the line and find out how kids like this can exist and make you take the journey of empathizing with their actions. The mugging at the beginning of the movie has the boys presented as what the media portrays them as: faceless hoodlums covered in bandanas and hoodies, attacking and victimizing helpless white women. Even the most progressive audience member might have the word “thug” pop unexpectedly into their minds. As the movie progresses the layers of Moses and the other kids reveal themselves and speak truth to the idea that the menacing image of them at the start was nothing but a fabrication and a front, the front being the performative masculinity the boys try and imitate from the real criminals who run the block.
You see through their eyes and hear from their mouths what this alien invasion looks like to them: just another encroachment of their already stepped-on circumstances. Usually aliens and invasion in sci-fi are coded as “fear of the other,” fears rooted in the European and western idea that any outside or exotic influence is one to be wary of. You see in movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Blob and books like Childhood’s End the fear of assimilation and influences that directly challenge western ideals of individuality and the image of the all-American everyman. For the kids however, Moses best sums up the general mood the invasion inspires:
“No, I reckon yeah, I reckon, the Feds sent them anyway. Government probably bred those things to kill black boys. First they sent in drugs, then they sent guns and now they’re sending monsters in to kill us. They don’t care man. We ain’t killing each other fast enough. So they decided to speed up the process.”
It rings of ham-fisted conspiracy theory, but in reality the veil has been slowly pulled back on the systematic abuse of people like this by western governments. Those conspiracies turned out to be true, so for how crazy a targeted alien invasion sounds to us, for the kids it would just be another drop in the bucket.
And these are and always were kids. Even as the justice system has young people of color getting harsher punishments than their white counterparts for comparable crimes, the movie understands that kids make mistakes and can learn and grow from them. As Cornish states on his commentary track of the film:
“For me it was always interesting to start with a character who was morally ambiguous…It could never have been a film about a sweet misunderstood gang, though it is a bit. It was important to me that they do do bad because it kinda does happen. The film’s all about trying to contextualize that one action.”
That outlook is so important to a film that’s exploring the social and political underpinnings of the life that kids like these lead in real life. POV doesn’t just refer to the type of character the story is told through but rather how a creator chooses to look at that character and their circumstances. This doesn’t mean scrubbing complicated people of their blemishes to appear progressive; it means looking deeper to see why those blemishes are there in the first place and never judging those blemishes. A recent example is director Sean Baker who has made this the focus of his films Tangerine and The Florida Project. He himself has never lived the lives of trans sex workers in L.A. or taken up residency in a ½ star Disney World motel, but he understands that the people who do are real and not some symbol of life on the margins. Cornish is no different. He looks at the people of the block and sees people looking back. People who make mistakes and can learn from them. People bound together trying to make the best out of a bad circumstance. People who look like villains to some, but if you take a closer look you’ll see some of the most selfless people to grace our tiny blue marble of planet. You just have to shift your point of view.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.