Attack The Block's Alien Designs Were Inspired By This '80s Arcade Game

There was a time when "hoodie" just referred to a plain old comfy sweatshirt with a built-in hood. But in the UK during the 2000s, the word became a derogatory catch-all term that conjured up images of a young, yobbish, working-class male, often seen hanging around bus shelters and shopping precincts, causing aggro and generally being intimidating. An encounter with a gang of hoodies could be a frightening experience, and people told their tales as if talking about a lucky escape from a pack of hyenas (via Slate).

Once held up by the Conservative Party as an emblem of "Broken Britain," the hoodie caused an awful lot of hand-wringing in the press. As Fiona Bawden of Women in Journalism said (via The Independent):

When a photo of a group of perfectly ordinary lads, just standing around wearing hooded tops, has become visual shorthand for urban menace, or even the breakdown of society, it's clear that teenage boys have a serious image problem.

With hoodies becoming such a fixation in the British public consciousness, they inevitably found their way to screen. The result was a sub-genre of horror that fell somewhere between urban wyrd, folk horror, and kitchen sink social realism in the cinematic landscape. It was "hoodie horror," usually featuring nice middle-class people menaced by gangs of deadly hoodie-wearing thugs. Perhaps the most well-known example, "Eden Lake" with Michael Fassbender and a young Jack O'Connell, even suggested these violent antisocial tendencies were endemic across whole generations of the working class (via Horrified Magazine).

2011 was arguably Peak Hoodie. Stereotypes wearing the offending garment were blamed for much of the violence and destruction during the London riots (via Reuters), and a capital under siege from people in hoodies was one of the most common images in the UK media at the time. Earlier in the year, "Attack the Block" came out, Joe Cornish's cult comedy-horror about a bunch of hoodie-wearing kids defending their inner-city estate from an alien invasion.

Given the negative public perception at the time, it was a quietly radical move from Cornish, going against the grain and casting a street gang as the heroes. That was half the point, to combat the trend of "hoodie horror" (via The List):

"This is certainly a reaction to [those] often brilliantly-made and well-crafted movies that I think take a slightly inhuman approach to an issue that, actually, involves very young kids. I think that's the easy option, to take something in the world that is already demonised and frightens people, and just make it even more scary and horrible."

Cornish spent months on the projects of South London speaking with teens and learning the dialect (via Complex) so he could really nail their slang in the movie. One of the great things about "Attack the Block" is how he pulls it off without coming across as pandering. The kids in the film, played by inexperienced local actors, feel real, and Cornish neither sentimentalizes nor patronizes them.

So what happens in Attack the Block Again?

It is Guy Fawkes Night in South London, the time of year us Brits like to stand outside in the November cold watching fireworks and burning effigies of some guy who attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament 400 years ago. Trainee nurse Samantha (Jodie Whittaker) is mugged by a gang of teenagers led by Moses (John Boyega), and escapes when they are distracted by a meteorite falling and destroying a parked car.

When the kids search the vehicle for valuables, they are attacked by a weird alien creature. They give chase and kill it. Thinking it might be worth a few quid, they take it over to their local drug dealer, Ron (Nick Frost), for storage. They see more meteorites raining down outside and charge outside to beat up any more creatures, but find that the occupants of these rocks are much larger and scarier. The gang retreat to Wyndham Tower where they prepare to defend their block from the ferocious alien invaders...

With Edgar Wright acting as Executive Producer for the project, Cornish's first feature is clearly cut from the same cloth as Wright's "Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy". Tellingly, one of the central locations in the film is Wyndham Tower, a nod to the influential writer who specialized in dropping otherworldly threats into typically English settings; a brood of telepathic moppets in "The Midwich Cuckoos" (adapted to film as "Village of the Damned") and killer plants of the streets of London in "The Day of the Triffids." Wyndham's work had an influence on "The World's End," and the Edgar Wright connection is completed by the presence of Nick Frost as the friendly dealer.

If the setting and the heroes are unusual for a sci-fi movie, "Attack the Block" is also remarkable for several other features. It stars Jodie Whittaker, who went on to become the first female "Doctor Who," and gave John Boyega his film debut. Then aged 18, he commands the screen as Moses, the charismatic gang leader whose hardman posturing belies a very sad and neglected home life. The film also featured some striking creature design. Which brings us to the real subject of this article! Where did the inspiration come from?

What inspired the creature design in Attack the Block?

In the video arcade heyday of the standup cabinet, games like "Joust," "Pacman," and "Donkey Kong," stood side-by-side in dark rooms filled with the overlapping crackle of crude sound effects and 8-bit tunes, funky with the smell of hot carpet, overloaded electric sockets, stale cigarette butts, and well-chewed bubblegum. The artwork on the side of the cabinets ranged from rudimentary to iconic, and one always captured my imagination more than all the others: "Space Invaders."

Set against a dark blue background, it showed the crater-pocked surface of an alien planet, with a menacing humanoid creature stomping its way threateningly towards to viewer, furry shoulders bunched and claws ready to strike. The most remarkable aspect of the image was how little detail it provided. The jagged outline gave the impression of very coarse fur, but aside from its pointed ears and glowing white eyes, it was completely blank, a deep featureless black.

It was this image that provided Cornish with one of several inspirations for the creature design in "Attack the Block" (via Vice):

"The idea for them being ultra-black came from my black cat. They look really beautiful when they're backlit, just like silhouettes. So we had people in suits and rubbed out all the reflections, so it was just a black shadow. In the '80s, the old Space Invaders video game in arcades had an illustration of the aliens and even though they're standing on two legs they're just silhouettes. So yeah, it was just sort of keeping my eyes and ears open and gathering influences and that sort of idea forming."

He explained further in Complex:

"We tried to make something that purposely lacked detail. Lots of CGI monsters are obsessed with surface detail, and making everything super realistic, which is weird to me when aliens aren't necessarily real... So we kind of tried to take away detail, and make them interesting because there wasn't that much to look at. Your brain has to fill in the blanks with my creatures. All you can see is this fur-line, and you can feel this alarming, rapid-moving, deep, deep blackness."

A clever mix of special effect techniques

The creature design is incredibly striking, a combination of physical man-in-a-monster suit, CG, animatronic effects, and rotoscoping. As Cornish said in another interview with Wired:

"We ended up using this hopefully quite innovative technique... based on memories of rotoscope. When I was a kid I went to see Ralph Bakshi's "Lord of the Rings" and I went to see an exhibition about it on a barge in the Thames and it showed how rotoscope worked. They shot live action on an empty set, then they paint over the live action and it becomes like an old version of motion capture. And I thought, well they've never blended that with actual live action actors before. And that's kind of what we're doing with lots of other enhancements, but I think it is a visual technique that I don't think anyone's tried before."

The man in the alien suit was Terry Notary, best known for his work playing animals and creatures. As Alex Esmail said in Vice:

"It's absolutely insane. The guy who wears the suit, Terry Notary, is an absolute legend. It was genuinely scary. It wasn't just a dude in a bright green suit that's got to have effects put on it. The suit was really big, black and furry and the head had glowing green sharp a*** teeth on it. In real life it looked like what it is."

With his relatively low budget, a clever mix of techniques, and a range of influences from old video game art to household pets, Cornish managed to create one of the most memorable screen aliens of the 21st century to date.