The phrase “Save the Cat” refers to a moment, typically early in a story, where a character performs a heroic deed for no real purpose except for to show the audience that they are dealing with a genuinely decent human being. A similar trope is “Pet the Dog,” where a more devious character still shows signs of goodness by doing something that is undeniably coded “good,” providing the character with a moral boost and, therefore, support from the audience. This is the kind of scene where Aladdin, in his self-titled debut film, gives the orphan kids the bread that he just stole or the scene where Voldemort, in the third Harry Potter movie, buys Girl Guide cookies so that the little Muggle girl can go to space camp. It’s all just a shorthand to let us know that this character has redeeming qualities so we should reserve our judgment until we’ve gotten to know the character a little better. The protagonist of Attack the Block, Moses, gets no such scene. The first time we see him, he’s mugging some poor woman, terrifying her and stripping her of anything with any perceived worth, including a ring whose value is clearly more sentimental than monetary.
During the mugging, a meteorite crashes down into the victim’s car, providing her a chance to escape. Ever the opportunist, Moses starts pillaging any valuables from the debris, when he is attacked by an alien who has apparently accompanied the space rock. Without any of kind cat-saving or dog-petting moments, the feeling of the opening scene is that this hoodlum is a disposable character whose only purpose is to show the violent ferocity of the alien invaders. His lack of development and overall moral shittiness are the perfect formula for monster-fodder, while also providing a tough guy adversary for the alien, in order to demonstrate the power of the creature while allowing the audience to enjoy a moment of karmic justice.
Instead, Moses survives and decides to hunt down the creature in order to kill it. Now, we figure, this is where he is going to bite it. But, again, Moses survives, creating a bizarre experience for the audience. So far, this character has done absolutely nothing to garner sympathy. He is violent, aggressive, prideful, criminal, and predatory but every time he survives an encounter, the more clear it becomes that he is intended to be the protagonist of the story. It’s an uncomfortable experience, especially considering how often, in other movies, we get that shorthand moment to tell us that he’s going to turn out alright. Moses is completely unsympathetic to the point that, at first, one could feel comfortable rooting for the aliens.
The most incredible thing about Attack of the Block (aside from the incredible glow-in-the-dark gorilla aliens) is the difference between how we feel about Moses at the beginning and end of the film. We go from seeing him as a miscreant, for whom we possibly even wish a violent death, to cheering along with the crowd at the end of the movie, celebrating a victory that will seemingly go unheralded by none but those who know the real story. His sympathy as a character is a slow burn that eventually ignites when he takes responsibility for the situation and for the well-being of his crew and the neighbourhood. What makes this so remarkable is that, without a sympathetic, central character, Attack of the Block comes close to feeling like it’s not worth watching. The experience is such a bizarre one that it’s very possible to imagine people, watching the movie in an online medium like Netflix, deciding to give up on it since they didn’t care one way or the other what happens to this punk, British kid and the rest of his posse of delinquents.
It seems like the obvious answer would be to throw a “Save the Cat” moment in there to get everyone onto Moses’ side but it wouldn’t be in line with the character. It’s not like Moses becomes a different person by the end of the movie. His “journey” is actually the audience’s as they start to uncover the circumstances which have led to his situation. To meet Moses is to fear him but to understand him is to respect him. While his upbringing and location have led to Moses’ criminal activity, they have, by necessity, resulted in traits – responsibility, courage, resolve, desperation – which allow him to look into the face of an alien invasion and make it his mission to ensure the threat is eliminated. Only a person hardened by the world could possibly become its saviour.
For Moses, the only “cats” worth saving are the ones who come from his block and are therefore under his protection. Whenever he looks outside of the world for which he has assumed guardianship, all he can see are aggressive forces trying to attack his people. Whether it’s the police or invaders from outer space, anyone who flexes power toward Moses’ block is going to have to go through him first. Any attempt by the filmmakers to create a shortcut of likeability would eliminate the complexity of the character and normalize a movie made outstanding by its refusal to cheapen an interesting character.
It would be a real shame if people did give up on Attack the Block before it really gets going. They would miss out on a really fun movie as well as a character who belongs on anyone’s “5 People I Would Team Up With to Save the World Against Aliens” list. I would bet $5 you would include him on your list except I can’t because Moses stole my wallet.