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The Director Who Could Be Spielberg

It’s been eight long years since Joe Cornish’s first film, the instant cult classic ‘Attack the Block,’ made him one of the hottest directorial talents in movies. Now he’s back with a modern spin on the Arthurian legend with ‘The Kid Who Would Be King.’ What took him so long?

Elias Stein/Getty Images

We’ve been over this: Not counting Robert Bresson and Monty Python, Excalibur is the only good King Arthur movie. In fact, you could argue that John Boorman’s visionary cult classic is ultimately more “great” than it is “good”—that it commits so fully and deeply to both its medieval source material and larger abstract notions of chivalrous Christian theology that conventional ideas of quality don’t apply. The image of Nigel Terry’s Arthur, wreathed in the rays of a blood-red sunset, dragging his impaled body along the gleaming length of a rival’s weapon in order to deliver a death blow, transcends both gore and gross-out comedy to become something authentically mythic—Arthur as sword and stone, one once-and-future king to rule them all.

It’d be nice to think that Joe Cornish’s The Kid Who Would Be King, which opens this weekend, will turn out to be a contender to the throne, especially since its creator has so much respect for his predecessor. “[Excalibur] is an amazing film,” Cornish told Uproxx. “It’s set in such a fantastic weird past, but it feels futuristic … it feels like science fiction and it’s so gory, and baroque, and sexy, and mystical.” Elsewhere in the interview, he explains that his goal with The Kid Who Would Be King is to meld a similar sense of awe to the weightless excitement of analogue-era children’s adventure films like Explorers and The Goonies, although the film’s setup, about a lonely preteen boy (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) taking a tug at Excalibur, is more specifically inspired by E.T., the Rosetta Stone for stories of the fantastic intruding on the everyday. Like other grown-up ’80s kids from M. Night Shyamalan to J.J. Abrams, Cornish has styled himself as the Man Who Would Be Spielberg.

He is closer than most, having already worked closely with Spielberg on 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin. But on the basis of his one previous directorial credit, the former radio star (who earned fame on the BBC and Channel 4 as part of the cult sketch duo Adam and Joe) is potentially an even more interesting figure—an heir to the modest but rich legacy of Joe Dante, who graciously accepted Spielberg’s support and patronage while ribbing him mercilessly at every turn.

Dante’s 1978 B-movie Piranha was a transparent attempt to nibble at Jaws box office leftovers while satirizing its behemoth status, substituting hundreds of small, voracious rubber carnivores for one submarine-sized great white. And in 1984’s Gremlins, he hilariously had one of the titular little monsters viciously shove an E.T. doll off a shopping mall shelf, a mix of affection, homage, and culture-industry satire suggesting that, like his stars, Dante had the capacity (and appetite) to bite the hand that feeds.

For my money, Cornish’s 2011 Attack the Block is the closest any movie has come to matching the unruly energy and exuberance of Gremlins and its (superior) sequel (which, if you haven’t watched in a while, is a late-capitalism critique featuring a Trump manqué as its bad guy), and stands with the very best of the genre hybrids that have defined 21st-century British pop cinema. For all the legitimately virtuoso filmmaking in the movies of Edgar Wright, none of them (not even the mighty Hot Fuzz) can claim the same cultural resonance as Cornish’s ingenious, politically charged allegory about an apartment complex besieged by extraterrestrials on Guy Fawkes Night—it’s a wizardly piece of work of brains, heart, and nerve.

“What kind of alien would invade some shitty council estate in South London?” It’s a good question, although the War of the Worlds setup—complete with an ominous meteor shower—is ultimately a pretense for a sharp, unsentimental observation of social, sexual, and racial stratification across the microcosm of a steel-and-concrete housing block. The opening sequence, in which a group of kids, led by Moses (John Boyega, looking every inch a future star), shake down a nurse (Jodie Whittaker) on her way home from work, is genuinely startling. It was Cornish’s own experience being mugged that inspired him to write the script, and he doesn’t sanitize the exchange. What’s daring is that, having introduced Moses and his underage, multicultural crew as antagonists—with Whittaker’s Sam as an unambiguous victim—he reconfigures our sympathies by widening the perspective to include an older crew of drug dealers, a ruthless cohort of cops, and then the aliens, whose unexpected and lethal presence doesn’t so much unite the neighborhood as expose its roiling sense of distrust and division.

Cornish’s love for E.T. is evident in how he begins his story with one lonely, isolated alien being discovered, but instead of being plied with Reese’s Pieces and earning a friend for life, it’s bludgeoned to death by Moses and his crew—an act of aggression that further complicates their status as heroes. When the invaders arrive en masse and reveal their true form—they’re furry, carnivorous creatures with sightless eyes and glowing red fangs—Moses’s crew go from hunters to hunted, and in the process reveal a humanity that undermines their original symbolic linkage to the aliens. When a white police officer reflexively blames black kids for the property damage caused by the creatures’ arrival, it’s a nod to Moses and Co.’s own status as undesirables on their home turf. When his group decides to help Sam secure sanctuary in the upper echelons of the apartment complex, Cornish doesn’t force forgiveness and understanding on his characters but establishes a plausible, affecting mutual protectiveness between them.

Where Wright’s films always come right up to the edge of authentic insight—the provincial evil in Hot Fuzz, the iPod solipsism of Baby Driver—only to plunge finally into exuberant, self-indulgent excess, Attack the Block stays playful and serious for its duration. A throwaway joke where a posh slacker (Luke Treadaway) is caught blaring KRS-One’s “Sound of Da Police” in his headphones by Moses not only satirizes hip-hop appropriation, but also arguably Cornish’s own undertaking as a white filmmaker attempting racially coded social commentary.

The fact that the aliens are constantly being described—and visualized—as being impossibly “black” to the point that their fur reflects no light and they are indistinguishable from the shadows they hide in is provocative in a purposeful way. It dares you to read the material literally, as does the revelation that the intruders’ rampages are driven by pheromone emissions, which may or may not be a comment on socially conditioned male aggression or a mirror for an inner-city drug epidemic that’s always at the edge of the story.

Boldly mixing metaphors without fixing his meanings—and keeping the action moving so swiftly that you don’t have time to deconstruct things until afterward, as it should be—Cornish demonstrates that showmanship doesn’t have to be empty. A slow-motion shot of Boyega running among the monsters with a samurai sword has the kinetic grandeur of Bong Joon-ho—or, for that matter, Boorman—while a climax staged with Moses clinging to a Union Jack as the block explodes around him is indelible: the national flag as a frayed, rapidly unraveling lifeline.

Attack the Block got the great reviews it deserved without being a hit. And the eight-year wait for a follow-up from Cornish has been frustrating for those of us who thought it was one of the decade’s great debuts. Cornish’s skills haven’t entirely gone to waste in the meantime. In addition to cowriting Tintin with Wright, he helped his countryman craft the script for the first Ant-Man before behind-the-scenes machinations placed Peyton Reed in the director’s chair. While searching for personal signatures in the blockbuster-by-committee world of Marvel is a bit of a mug’s game (notwithstanding Ryan Coogler’s undeniably personalized Black Panther), I’d like to think that some of Ant-Man’s verbal and conceptual agility comes out of Cornish’s input.

The revelations of a few other unrealized studio projects, meanwhile, serve as a reminder of both the relative rarity (in the U.S.) of mainstream-facing masterpieces like the U.K.-made Attack the Block, and also the fact that, even for the most genre-friendly filmmakers, a lack of resources is often a good thing, and not a bad thing. Give me the thriftiest films of Peter Jackson (Bad Taste), James Cameron (The Terminator), and Sam Raimi (Evil Dead 2) over the nine-figure event movies they earned later down the line. One of the regular highlights of Adam and Joe were the duo’s “Toymovies,” which used stuffed animals and cardboard sets to re-create contemporary classics: A clip like “Se7en”, which filters David Fincher’s MTV grimness through a teddy bear picnic, goes beyond simple parody: It’s as much a witty, ingenious calling card as a tribute.

At 50, Cornish isn’t a kid, and the amount of swirling, pricey CGI in the trailer suggests he’s working—really for the first time—with a grown-up budget. Unless you’re M. Night, January is an elephant’s graveyard for expensive genre films; from an artistic perspective, Excalibur and E.T. are lofty targets. The possibility of a flop is very much on the table, and the Holy Grail of another good King Arthur movie may or may not actually be within reach. But if chasing after the heroes of his childhood is what it takes for a gifted filmmaker to finally get his shot, that’s succession for you.