Welcome to another installation of Portrait of a Killer Character! For some reason, horror seems to get accused of shallow, tropey characters more than other genres. While there are of course horror films that warrant character-based criticism, there are just as many that deserve praise. Here, in this monthly editorial, we’ll take a look at some of the best developed, most interesting and well-rounded characters that horror has to offer. These characters defy stereotypes and their value transcends the genre into the world of film at large. As it is No One Can Hear You Scream month here at Nightmare on Film Street, this month we’ll look at Moses (John Boyega) from 2011’s sci-fi classic, Attack the Block.
In his feature film directorial debut, Joe Cornish (The Kid Who Would Be King) brings outer space to the inner city of South London. While many alien invasion films cover sprawling amounts of physical landscape, Attack the Block focuses on one particular Brixton area council estate. Along with this focused setting, Cornish also takes the opportunity to explore this alien event through the lens of a small group of the building’s residents. Despite each and every character displaying their own unique stories, personalities and qualities, Moses quickly becomes the central figure to audience and neighborhood alike. With Cornish’s well crafted script and direction, Moses becomes a character that not only anchors the film, but navigates the rocky road to moral redemption with ease. All this while fighting massively aggressive Space Invader-like aliens. Believe.
Attack the Block follows an unlucky young woman and a gang of tough inner city kids who make an unlikely alliance to try to defend their turf against an invasion of savage alien creatures, turning a South London apartment complex into an intergalactic war-zone.
One of the most interesting things about Moses is the manner in which we first encounter him. As the film begins, we follow a young nurse named Sam (played by future Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker) as she walks home to the council estate. On her way there, we get a taste for the neighborhood as she walks down graffiti-ridden alleyways and dimly lit side streets. Suddenly, she spies a group of hoodie-clad youths congregated in suspicious fashion. As soon as she notices them, they notice her and the moment quickly turns tense.
Sam finds herself surrounded while Moses demands her wallet, his voice muffled by a bandanna pulled up over his mouth. In his eyes, we see a cultivated stoicism punctuated by a forced determination. After demanding her ring (obviously of little monetary value), Sam hesitates. This brief pause causes Moses to pull a knife and clumsily attempt at removing the ring himself. While the physicality of the mugging quickly escalates, a breeze of panic and nervousness noticeably blows through the group. And then, suddenly…bam! An unidentified object decimates a nondescript car parked nearby.
As Sam seizes the moment to run home, Moses and company quickly turn their focus to the car. Jumping on the opportunity to raid the car’s contents, Moses quickly discovers a small, fierce Xenomorph-primate hybrid. Naturally, the alien attacks Moses and leaves a nasty face scratch before running into a nearby park. Wounded, both physically and emotionally, Moses exhibits overly masculine behavior as he seeks revenge on the unidentified creature. With Moses leading the charge, the five boys corner the alien and take pride in killing it with ease. It’s not until the boys parade their conquest in front of a group of female friends that Tia (Danielle Vitalis) raises the first question of morality in regards to Moses‘ choice to immediately kill the creature.
“In his eyes, we see a cultivated stoicism punctuated by a forced determination.”
What’s so fascinating about the film up to this point is the fact that Moses has exhibited no redeeming qualities what so ever. In fact, when Sam is comforted by a fellow building resident, the older lady calls the group ‘monsters.’ While it’s clear that this group of young punks are to be main players in the film, they have given us as an audience no reason to emotionally support or engage with them. The only possible excuse Moses and friends have going for them is their youth, but thanks to Tia‘s call-out, that excuse quickly loses what little strength it had. It’s an interesting choice for Cornish to set-up his main character with such a negative foundation. However, this crystal clear introduction allows Moses‘ journey to progress and resonate with an incredible amount realism and weight.
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As the story continues, the main fuel source for Moses‘ character development resides in Sam. Time and time again the two find themselves meeting under less than desirable circumstances. And time and time again the two find themselves in an awkward shared stand-off of disdain. After Moses snarkily asks for thanks in helping Sam survive her first attack by the larger, bear-like aliens Sam counters sarcastically saying ‘My fucking hero.’ And then, while everyone regroups after invading her apartment, she coolly delivers the line,’Five of you and one knife against one woman? Fuck off.‘ Even though she realizes they all need each other in this moment, she never lets the boys (and Moses especially) off the hook for their previous behavior.
Yes, the situation has changed and she does begin to soften as she gets to know the boys better, but that never invalidates what they did to her. It’s not until much later in the film that Moses finally apologizes to Sam properly, and even then she points out his apology is only coming because Moses now knows she lives in the building. By continually keeping Moses accountable for his actions, Sam forces him to confront the reality of what he has done and reinforces the larger idea that his actions have consequences.
However, the beautiful thing about Sam and Moses‘ relationship is the way in which she consistently checks his choices and behavior, but never condemns him as a person. Because of this slight but important differentiation, Moses‘ character arc develops in a unique way. While many action-adventure or sci-fi films would typically take the hero’s journey route, Moses‘ path becomes one of moral redemption. Keeping the film’s set-up in mind, Moses was never established as one with hero potential in the first place. And yet, he wasn’t quite doomed either. Even though his initial actions were undeniably wrong, Moses was still bordering on truly ‘bad.’ We see this idea reflected beautifully in the way Moses presents himself throughout the film, as well as through Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), the much older local drug dealer. Drug dealing aside, Hi-Hatz is the true embodiment of toxic masculinity and arrogant stubbornness. His role serves as a real bad guy in the story as well as a warning to what Moses could become.
While we watch Moses navigate these shifting emotions amidst utter chaos, we catch glimpses of his inner dialogue through his tone, facial expressions and body language. When we first met Moses, his presentation was arrogant, sneering and manufactured. The manner in which he spoke was short, punctuated and filled with attitude. Even his gaze was a modified thousand-yard stare for an urban environment. And yet, as the night progresses in dramatic fashion, we begin to see these behaviors so obviously used as armor, start to fall away. The subtle shifts in Moses‘ voice tone, the relaxation of his face, posture and dialogue all signify the internal gears shifting within him (as well as pretty remarkable acting chops from John Boyega). The way in which he views his friends, Sam and himself transforms along with his literal gaze. What was once a rather forced attempt at manufactured machismo becomes a softer, more sincere peek into his psyche.
“What was once a rather forced attempt at manufactured machismo becomes a softer, more sincere peek into his psyche.”
As the ‘big alien gorilla wolf motherfuckers’ continue to pursue Moses, his friends and Sam, reality truly begins to sink in after the gang loses two of its members. After some particularly well-written exposition, Moses realizes the whole situation was due to his first emotionally rash interaction with the alien species. Because of this, Moses owns up to his wrongdoings and finally, fully embraces the final leg of his redemption journey. He started this fight, and it’s now up to him to finish it.
Hand in hand with this moment of self actualization from Moses comes a bit of character development for the audience as well. As part of Moses‘ big final plan, Sam is required to enter Moses‘ apartment. As she enters, she quickly realizes this is not a healthy home environment. While Cornish cleverly established early on that all the other young boys come from some sort of loving, family home, Moses was deliberately left out. Sam soon discovers that Moses shares his home with his Uncle…sometimes. She also discovers bedroom decor for a much younger boy which causes her to ask Moses, “How old are you?” It is then that Moses reveals, “15.”
Aside from the obvious pity that immediately floods over Sam, it also firmly establishes the fact that Moses is, in all reality, still a kid. Suddenly all of his actions and behaviors take on a slightly different shine under the light of this new information. Despite his cool and strong demeanor, his physical presence and knack for leadership, this is a young adult silently struggling with very real issues. While this information could be viewed as Cornish creating an excuse for Moses‘ poor choices before the alien invasion, Sam‘s conversations with the boys directly counter this notion.
Never once are Moses‘ actions in the beginning of the film forgotten or made light of. In contrast, this new information brings up the larger issues of what led Moses to those actions in the first place. By allowing Sam to enter into his apartment and by revealing such personal information, Moses takes one giant step closer to redemption. Mere hours ago Sam was just an easy target to Moses, and yet here we see him sharing an extremely intimate part of his life with her. Ironically, it took an alien invasion to save Moses from self-perpetuated alienation.
“Ironically, it took an alien invasion to save Moses from self-perpetuated alienation.”
In a literal blaze of glory, Moses eradicates the alien invaders in a final solo mission. Apart from creating an incredible final action sequence, it shows the completion of Moses‘ redemption story as he risks his life alone in the attempt. While police finally fully respond to the event, they arrest not only Moses but the rest of his motley crew. As the scene drips with socially relevant commentary and crowds cheering Moses‘ name, the police ask Sam if the boys were the ones that mugged her. And in a final, satisfying response Sam says, “I know them. They’re my neighbors. They protected me.” Sam does not call them heroes. She does not ignore their previous behavior. And yet she does not lie, condemn or insult them. As Moses sits, handcuffed in the back of a police van, we get his first smile in the whole film. Here, in the final moments, not only does Moses finally redeem himself with Sam and with us as an audience, but with himself as well.
Along with Moses‘ quietly powerful journey, Attack the Block shines in several incredible ways. For one, the film was ahead of its time with its nostalgia infused vibe, sci-fi inspired visuals and a killer soundtrack. It also boasts strikingly effective practical effects, stunning lighting and top notch cinematography. Cornish reportedly spent months interviewing young kids from inner city London to learn their lingo, fears, challenges and how they would handle an alien invasion. Bits of their specific dialogue, weapon choices and suggestions were fused with Cornish’s original ideas. When it came to casting, he even chose actors (many of them first timers) from the London area deliberately and over more-experienced, professional actors. In fact, John Boyega learned of the casting call from an ad in the local paper. This dedication to authenticity from beginning to the end of production comes through with remarkable effect and stands as testament to Cornish’s passion for the project. He didn’t just want to write his interpretation of London inner city kids, he wanted to write an accurate interpretation of London inner city kids.
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Perhaps because of this approach, Attack the Block addresses some incredibly valuable and relevant social issues. We see issues of racism, class discrepancy, lack of opportunities for inner city youth, cultural treatment and views on young black men all addressed in thoughtful, affecting ways that seamlessly gel with the overall film. It’s a delicate tightrope to walk that could easily tip into the realm of self-righteousness or heavy handed social commentary. And yet, Cornish walks that tightrope with ease, grace and well-crafted humor. Nine years later, the conversation presented within the framework of Attack the Block remains vitally important and perhaps more crucial than ever. For all these reasons and more, Attack the Block easily stands as one of the greatest science fiction films of the last decade. Truth.
Are you a fan of Attack the Block? How did Moses‘ journey to redemption sit with you? Let us know over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!