Joe Cornish wanted to direct movies long before he got the chance. In conversation with friend and fellow filmmaker Edgar Wright on one of the three commentary tracks included on the Blu-ray of his 2011 alien invasion thriller Attack the Block, Cornish refers to having had “movie blue balls. He nurses a frustration that the British film industry didn’t seem to have room for the sort of genre films he wanted to make as he was coming up in the entertainment world.
He eventually got where we wanted to be, making his directorial debut with Attack the Block, a hit at home and a cult favorite abroad, and stepping into the studio world with his second film, this week’s The Kid Who Would Be King. But Cornish took a circuitous route to his current position, and he got there by keeping it small, both figuratively and literally.
Sometimes extremely literally: Though best known in the U.S. for Attack the Block and for co-writing the original script to Ant-Man with Wright, Cornish earned a following in the UK for his work with actor-comedian-writer-podcaster Adam Buxton. The pair still occasionally team up, most regularly for an annual Christmas podcast, but for a stretch in the mid-’90s to early-’00s they were inseparable, most prominently appearing together as co-stars of The Adam & Joe Show, a freewheeling series whose regular features included a series called “Toymovies,” which used toys to send-up popular films.
That sounds like the easy way to a cheap laugh. It was anything but. Take, for instance, this parody of The English Patient, retitled, of course, “The Toy Patient”:
The jokes, while amusing, aren’t particularly complicated. It’s funny to see toys reenacting such a somber film, funnier still to hear the teddy bear subbed-in for Ralph Fiennes to moan, “Wait, I think I’m going to have a multi-award winning three-hour flashback!” But what’s really striking is how much “The Toy Patient” looks like The English Patient, the care that’s been placed into mimicking the shot composition, lighting, even the editing rhythms of Anthony Minghella’s stately tale of doomed love. The short gets all that right, then adds fuzzy animals and fart jokes. It’s at once incredibly dumb and incredibly sophisticated.
”The Toy Patient” is also the sort of work other filmmakers would laugh off or pretend never happened, but Cornish keeps coming back to it while talking to Wright on the Attack the Block commentary, saying his strategy was to become a filmmaker “just by doing anything, just by not being snobby about what I did and just by doing little things with teddy bears, just doing really, lo-fi comedy.” And by Cornish’s reckoning, that experience served as an extension of film school, an excuse to “worship film” by studying how it works, even if the end result meant sending a toy pig diving to the bottom of a filthy toilet.
Those lessons proved transportable when the time came to make Attack the Block. Telling the story of an alien invasion, but confining the action to a single South London neighborhood, Cornish kept his ambitions scaled down. The film benefits from that narrow focus, both stylistically and thematically. Where contemporaneous efforts like Skyline and Battle Los Angeles strove to capture apocalyptic, citywide destruction, Attack the Block dropped its invaders on an unsuspecting, diverse, working class neighborhood and made a film as much about those who lived there and what they were defending as the strange creatures from the sky hunting them. Cornish isn’t working with stuffed animals on shoebox-sized sets anymore, but he’s learned that keeping his attention trained on a few confined spaces yields benefits that a more far-ranging approach can’t. The block matters as much as the attack.
That’s specifically Wyndham Tower, a tower block housing complex that’s home to Samantha (future Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker), a trainee nurse robbed by a gang of knife-wielding, bandana-wearing toughs led by Moses (future Star Wars star John Boyega). This sort of scene tends to plays out predictably in other movies. Our white heroine, after being robbed by mostly black criminals tossing out slang-heavy threats, is supposed to move on to whatever’s next. This is, obviously, her story. Only Cornish never makes the obvious choice.
Attack the Block circles back to Samantha in time, but first explores the lives of Moses and his followers, more kids than low-level aspiring criminals, though the world they live in sometimes doesn’t make that distinction. As aliens descend upon Earth, Cornish glides through the Wyndham Tower economy, from the penthouse apartment where the shaggy Ron (Nick Frost) and his violent boss Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) deal drugs to the streets where Moses and his friends distribute them.
Most of the characters make an impression, but it’s ultimately Moses’ story, and without preaching or hand-wringing, it’s a story of redemption. Moses begins the film as a posturing baddie. He ends it as a kid willing to put his life on the line for those around him, even the woman he robbed just a few hours earlier. He may play at being bad, but there’s still much separating him from Hi-Hatz, including the excuse of youth. When Samantha has to go to his apartment he finds his bed still covered in Spider-Man sheets. He’s really still a kid.
Cornish’s commitment to smallness extends to the action scenes, staged mostly in the claustrophobic confines of Wyndham Tower where the residents do battle against scary extraterrestrial foes that are also obviously the product of some budget-conscious choices. For most of the film, the invaders are barely seen, making it all the easier to stage suspenseful sequences that rely heavily on suggestion. When they do appear, they’re furry forms too dark in appearance to make individual details discernible — with the notable exception of their terrifying glowing teeth. These were created by using performers in suits and, yes, puppets — another filmmaking skill carried over from Toymovies.
The result is an unusually intimate hybrid of science fiction, horror, action, and urban realism playing out on a small stage that still gives Cornish space to write compelling characters and stage scary scenes that owe debts to predecessors like Alien, The Thing, and Dawn of the Dead. It’s also a too-rare example of the sort of genre movie we don’t see often enough; neither a micro-budgeted indie nor a blockbuster with world-conquering ambitions, Attack the Block is consciously pocket-sized and character-driven and all the more memorable for it. That it produced both the 13th Doctor and a stormtrooper-turned-Resistance hero is just one reason to root for more scaled-back genre films that build their premises around their heroes rather than the other way around.
As part of his education, Cornish studied the films he wanted to imitate carefully, sometimes with a teddy bear in hand. With luck, there are up-and-coming filmmakers applying the same scrutiny to Cornish’s debut.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film, television, and other aspects of popular culture. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter and does not currently moonlight as a masked vigilante. Find him on Twitter @kphipps3000.