Tomorrow When the War Began

Director: Stuart Beattie
Starring: Caitlin Stasey, Rachel Hurd-Wood and Lincoln Lewis
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Runtime: 103 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: violence, drug use and coarse language

A book that has been read widely through school syllabus listing – but one that has been very popular, a good choice for a movie. John Marsden has written a Tomorrow series of books (1993-1999) as well as a series about his central character, Ellie, The Ellie Chronicles (2003-2006). And this seems to have paid off as the opening week in Australia saw box-office of over four million dollars. The readers must have wanted to see how the film turned out, and don’t seem to have been disappointed.

Writer and director, Stuart Beattie, who started writing screenplays at home in the 1990s but then found success in Hollywood with Pirates of the Caribbean, Collateral, G.I. Joe and other action films, inserts a line in his film when one character has been reading (yes, reading) Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career and her friend asks her if she likes it. Better than the film, she says. And the friend replies that the film is never as good as the book!

It’s very much an older teenage movie as it opens. In the country town of Wirrawee (filmed in the Hunter Valley with excursions into the Blue Mountains), some of the high schoolers want to go camping during the show weekend. They spend some time organising seven for the trip. For the boys, there is one of Greek descent, another Asian. The girls are much of a muchness, although one is wealthy and pampered, another is devoutly religious. One is in a relationship with the third boy. The leader is Ellie (Caitlin Stasey, convincing). While on their trip, they chatter and banter, with some touches of the hormones, and the visual style is often that of television commercials for this age audience. No problems in the target audience identifying with the characters. There is the jock (Lincoln Lewis) who proves himself a touch cowardly but redeems himself. There is the Greek clown (in the Australian humorous tradition of Wogboys) who has more in him than smart remarks and pratfalls (Deniz Akdeniz) and there is the intelligent young student who works in his family’s Asian restaurant (Chris Pang).

Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings) is dominated by her religious father (some Catholic images in their house) but has to make some moral decisions as the group becomes more involved in the war. Fiona has a dominating, image-driven mother who tends to put her down with the result that she is more sheltered and ignorant than everyone thinks (Phoebe Tonkin is persuasive). British Rachel Hurd-Wood is Ellie’s best friend, Corrie.

We know that there is a war as the film opens with Ellie speaking to camera and narrating what has happened. What has happened is an invasion from a neighbouring Asian country, the adults rounded up and patrols moving around the town as well as planes flying overhead and helicopter surveillance.

The bewildered youngsters, and the audience with them, take step by step to find out what has happened. Ultimately, there are some explanations given as to how the invasion was able to be a surprise (to do with ports, container ships and weapons).

The film improves when they discover the war. At least, it moves from a teenage movie popular at the multiplex to a more complex and interesting story of a group of young people, inexperienced but using some savvy, worried by the dilemmas they have to face (including killing the enemy), moving into resistance mode (and joined by a stoner, Chris (Andy Ryan) who has been left behind by his parents). They certainly do some heroic manoeuvres (and there are some entertaining garbage collection truck and huge petrol tanker chases, expert effects and pyrotechnics), but they also make mistakes (especially with a suspenseful episode where their plan is in danger when mobiles have been switched off and Ellie and Fiona become absorbed in girl talk).

Very few adults appear in the film, some parents and, later, the local dentist helping the wounded Lee, played by Colin Friels.

The plot resembles Red Dawn, a 1984 movie with Patrick Swayze about youngsters forming resistance in an invasion. It has been re-made this year in the US (with Australians Chris Hemsworth and Isabel Lucas in the cast). But, Tomorrow is firmly Australian in locations (and flags), accents and the always topical issue of whether the continent, with its resources, can accommodate a greater population (sustainable or not) within the context of the masses of people in neighbouring Asian countries.

There is also a topical message inserted at one point. Just as we might be thinking that this is what it might have been like had the Japanese landed in 1942 and taken over the land, Ellie notices a fresco on a wall with the British authorities taking over and a glimpse of aboriginal people watching this invasion with puzzlement.

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