The Double Feature: Super 8 and Attack the Block
Double features were once seen as a way to draw moviegoers to the theaters, especially during the Depression Era. Theater patrons could see two movies for the price of one and it was good for Hollywood as well because the practice gave them the opportunity to package their cheaply made B-movies with their big budget, star-filled A-movies. Double features are mostly a thing of the past in theaters today, but thanks to the easy availability of movies for home viewing we can now build our own double features without ever leaving the couch.
Which brings us to The Double Feature, a new reoccurring feature I’ll be doing here at Film Equals. I’m going to draw inspiration from the old Hollywood model by pairing a certified hit with a low-budget indie film, a misunderstood flop or a cult classic. First up, we have two movies about kids facing down aliens. They debuted about a month apart at the box office, but both movies managed to make their mark thanks to their original plots and superb casts. Despite their similar premises, Super 8 and Attack the Block tell two entirely different (but equally interesting) stories that make for one excellent movie night when they’re packaged together.
The nostalgia-fueled Super 8 was one of the best movies to come out of the summer movie season in 2011. It was that rare blockbuster that came fully equipped with riveting action sequences, humor and heart. It centers on a group of kids in a small town who stumble upon something not of this world after sneaking out to film a scene for their zombie movie in the middle of the night.
As much as Super 8 is an homage to the Spielberg movies of the ’70s and ’80s, it’s also just a good old-fashioned coming of age tale. It’s at its most powerful when its lead character, Joe (Joel Courtney), is grappling with the loss of his mother or bumbling his way through his first crush. Director J.J. Abrams smartly put as much emphasis on Joe’s character arc as he did on the action. He even went so far as to dovetail Joe’s emotional arc with that of the alien’s.
Deep down, Super 8 is all about the myth of the American summer–it’s full of friendships, adventure and first love. It has a number of genuine scares too, not to mention a heart-stopping train crash sequence, but what makes it worth revisiting over and over again is the chemistry between the kids. Super 8 has all of the fun of The Goonies combined with the soul of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and its talented group of young actors sell every minute of it.
Last summer’s crop of movies didn’t deliver just one awesome kids and aliens movie, it delivered two, and the second one was Attack the Block. Set in and around a South London apartment complex, Attack the Block focuses on a local street gang who find themselves defending their home turf against an alien invasion. The movie earned an overwhelming amount of critical praise for its gritty cool style and superb cast, but it didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, instead it instantly became a cult classic.
It’s impressive how much writer/director Joe Cornish did with a relatively small budget. For my money, the aliens in Attack the Block are the niftiest looking movie aliens I’ve seen in years, and while their concept–jet black fur and glowing eyes–is relatively simple, it’s still incredibly effective. Minimalist though they are, the aliens are undeniably menacing.
They don’t steal the movie from its funny and gifted young protagonists though, the best of which is the leader of the gang, Moses (John Boyega). Boyega is brilliant. I can’t explain what it is that’s so magnetic about his performance, it’s something that has to be seen. Suffice it to say, the kid’s got serious chops.
It should also be noted that Attack of the Block has as much style as it does substance. It’s got the same flashy directing and fast-paced dialogue that makes Edgar Wright’s films so addictive (which is no coincidence, Wright was an executive producer on the film), but make no mistake, it packs real emotion in addition to its expertly crafted quips.
Beyond the obvious kids and aliens connection, it’s interesting to watch Super 8 and Attack the Block together because they both came out in the same year and they share a similar premise, but they approach the core concept in completely different ways. Super 8 is a film steeped in Americana and it’s always looking back. It’s set in the ’70s and it clearly draws inspiration from the movies of that era, evoking a longing for days gone by. Attack the Block is a purely British film that is very much set in the now. It’s darker and bloodier, and its kids have lived lives that don’t lend themselves to nostalgic longing or final act alien bonding.
They’re both great movies and watching them side by side is an exercise in contrasts. Together they tell us something about the attitudes of not only the filmmakers, but the prevailing mood of the moment they were made in. The yearning for a mythical time past mixed with the dirty business of living in the very real, very messy present makes for a great double feature.
What do you think of these two movies? Have you ever watched them together before? Sound off in the comments below.
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