Earth Under Attack, As Entertainment: Attack the Block, and Cowboys & Aliens, two humorous science-fiction films

By Daniel Garrett

Attack the Block
Directed by Joe Cornish
Screen Gems/Sony, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens
Directed by Jon Favreau
Universal/DreamWorks/Reliance, 2011

Science fiction allows the opportunity for philosophical speculation and also for having fun with our fears; and with two motion pictures, Attack the Block and Cowboys & Aliens, the emphasis is in the direction of fun. One takes place in the city, and one in the country. In Attack the Block, one night a group of urban London boys rob a young woman, Sam (played by Jodi Whittaker), and then come face to face with a strange creature that turns out to be the beginning of an alien invasion—and, rather than being intimidated, the young people use makeshift arms to repel the invasion. The young woman they have robbed comes to feel safer in their company than alone. They are capable, inventive, tough boys, a multicultural group, and their responses are believable and funny; and they are led by John Boyega’s brash but sensitive Moses, who resembles a very young Denzel Washington. One of the interesting aspects of this vivid film, full of anticipation, amusement, and anxiety, is the fact that at first the young people are irritating and threatening, the kind that one would cross the street to avoid. Their attitude is rude, language offensive, and acts easily contemptible. It is a lesson that the film allows us to see another side to them—that they can be both resilient and sweet. It seems that the culture they have created for themselves is one that works in the world in which they find themselves. They have parents, and one assumes that they have school teachers, and even priests, doctors, policemen, and other authorities that brush against their lives, but somehow none of those authorities have given them anything of great value. The children are each other’s friends and resources; and they use some of their ordinary stuff—baseball bat, samurai sword, firecrackers—to combat the aliens. They visit a group of tough girls who help, and even devise a strategy to outwit the aliens—and display genuine heroism.

Cowboys & Aliens is a great-looking film, and it is quick-moving and funny, fulfilling expectations for both the western and the science fiction film: it is about a man who wakes in a desert with a strange powerful bracelet on his arm, and no memory; and it turns out he is a reformed outlaw, and his swift skills are the ones needed when the aliens come to town, bombing buildings and roping people off the streets. The motion picture stars a too-thin looking Daniel Craig (Craig, who looks full-faced and good in The Golden Compass of several years ago, and does not look bad in the recent horror mystery Dream House, is muscular and fit in this movie, but his face is drawn, lined, and has no charm—he has starved the charm off his face). Daniel Craig is one among a cast that includes the beautifully exotic, strong Olivia Wilde, the eccentric, likable Sam Rockwell, the still-sturdy Harrison Ford, and the sweet, soulful Adam Beach. They track the aliens, in search of the taken people; and bump into the amnesiac outlaw’s old gang, who are recruited as soldiers to fight the aliens. The westerners think at first that the aliens might be demons, their only cultural reference for the otherworldly—until Wilde’s character reveals that she knows more about them, who see the earth and its people as nothing more than a resource to be harvested. There are stories within the larger story of a response to an alien invasion, having to do with lovers put in danger by questionable individual acts and the disappointment of fathers and the longing of sons. Cowboys & Aliens, like Attack the Block, is not deep but it is a surprisingly satisfying popular film.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.