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Based on the first of ten novels in the bestselling young adult series by John Marsden, “Tomorrow, When the War Began” is from writer/director Stuart Beattie, a native Aussie who made good in Hollywood writing blockbusters like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, among others. “Tomorrow” marks Beattie’s directorial debut, and it’s quite the cherished tome in its native land, so he couldn’t have picked a more rewarding (and potentially dangerous) debut. I don’t have a whole lot of stake in the book-to-movie translation, but I can say that from my outsider’s POV, he did okay. Not great, mind you, but “Tomorrow, When the War Began” the movie has its moments, though it’ll probably look and feel too much like John Milius’ 1984 movie “Red Dawn”. Aussies who grew up with the book may be able to look past the similarities, but others may think differently, especially with the “Red Dawn” remake due out soon.
Like “Red Dawn”, the heroes of “Tomorrow” are high school teens, in this case small-town kids from Nowheresville Wirrawee, Australia. The lead character is Ellie (Caitlin Stasey), who along with a group of friends head out into the woods for a weekend of camping. Along for the ride are Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood), Ellie’s best friend; Homer (Deniz Akdeniz), Ellie’s neighbor and brother figure; Kevin (Lincoln Lewis), Corrie’s boyfriend; good church-going girl Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings); rich “townie” Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin); and Lee (Chris Pang), the guy who Ellie has a crush on. Fortunately for the kids, they are camping out in a secluded part of the woods nicknamed “Hell” (which looks a bit like paradise, as it turns out) when a foreign army launches a full-scale invasion of Australia. The kids see enemy planes in the night sky, but think nothing of it.
By the time the teens realize what has happened, their parents have been rounded up in town, and enemy tanks and soldiers are rolling across the country using Wirrawee’s bridge, which connects to a nearby port. Nowheresville Wirrawee, as it turns out, is a major strategic point for the bad guys. Of course, the kids aren’t thinking like soldiers yet, though Ellie quickly wises up to the idea that the world they knew is no more, and they must cease to think like kids if they are to survive. Their first foray into town for information proves deadly, with one member taking a bullet in the leg, and Ellie forced to use her quick thinking to facilitate the others’ escape. What are a bunch of Australian kids to do against the might of an invading foreign power? Can you scream, “Wolverines!”? Well, can you?
Stuart Beattie has done a reasonably good job with his directorial debut, and I can’t imagine the pressure he was under to deliver something good, given the book’s popularity in Australia. Considering that the original source material was a series of young adult novels (about war, no less!), it’s not surprising that “Tomorrow” sometimes feels too easy, too … innocent. For an enemy that has succeeded in taking control of a massive country like Australia in the space of a couple of days, these unidentified “foreign power” sure looks mighty buffoonish against a bunch of teenagers on dirt bikes. Sure, they may wear heavy body armor and carry assault rifles, but the ease with which Ellie and friends outrun, outshoot, and outthink these soldiers border on Disney-level “Home Alone” absurd. And man, for a town that has been cordoned off, getting in and out sure seems mighty easy.
The novels by Marsden famously never came right out and identified the invaders by name, country, or ethnicity, which is one thing the movie can’t get away with. You can keep calling them “invaders” all you want on the printed page, but you need to actually cast someone to play them in the movie. This results in Beattie’s invaders looking suspiciously Chinese, though Beattie has gone to great lengths to hide their ethnicity. Are they Chinese? Japanese? Korean? Somewhere in-between? A combination of the three, perhaps? We never really hear the invaders speak clearly (they mostly whisper in “Asian”-sounding gibberish meant to disguise their language, or else they’re using broken English to communicate with the locals), and for the most part the bad guys come across more like outer space alien invaders, with their bulky, all-black body-armored uniforms and seemingly (from the camera’s POV, at least) driverless vehicles.
For those looking for an adrenaline rush, “Tomorrow, When the War Began” might be a bit too tame in terms of action and violence to get the ol juices flowing. As the first of a potential franchise, it has the luxury of setting up its characters and their situations (or, these being teens, their crushes and insecurities) before getting to the war part. Even then, though, the film seems to treat it all as fun and games, at least until someone gets shot in the eye. No one gets shot in the eye, of course, but they do get shot in other parts of the body, though when this happens it feels like an odd occurrence. Later in the film, the group adds another member, a stoner named Chris (Andrew Ryan). Needless to say, Ellie seems to be the only one taking this invasion thing very seriously. Well, Ellie and Homer, and maybe Lee, but he could just be trying to get into Ellie’s pants, so who knows, really.
It’s probably just as well that the invaders are bumbling idiots, since their ineptness gives Ellie and her buds time to sit around and share their feelings. The movie opens and ends with Ellie speaking directly into the camera, with her voiceover appearing sporadically throughout. This actually hampers the film, and shows Beattie’s inexperience as director. When Ellie kills her first enemy soldier and discovers that the invader was a girl no older than she was, we actually hear Ellie, in voiceover, mention this. Apparently Beattie was afraid we wouldn’t “get” it from his two-shot of Ellie and her first (of many) victim. Yes, we get it, Stuart. Later, Ellie and Fiona share some giggling girl talk as enemy soldiers creep up on them from behind. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so absurd.
Acting in “Tomorrow” is hit and miss, though Caitlin Stasey makes a pretty good show as Ellie. Her casting was a point of Internet debate, given that it’s Ellie who narrates the novels and it’s through her eyes that much of the story is told in the movie. Deniz Akdeniz has the other notable role as Ellie’s neighbor and sorta-brother Homer, though curiously Chris Pang, as Ellie’s love interest Lee, really doesn’t have a whole lot to do. Ashleigh Cummings, as the church-going and religious Robyn, has the film’s best moment that comes completely out of nowhere. Andrew Ryan is amusing as stoner Chris, and Phoebe Tonkin, well, she cuts a mighty fine figure, that Phoebe. Rachel Hurd-Wood (“Solomon Kane”) is the biggest International name in the cast, and it’s interesting that Beattie didn’t cast her as Ellie instead, given that she has much more name recognition than Stasey.
Marsden obviously took the idea behind John Milius’ “Red Dawn” and tweaked the story by setting it in his own country. It’s certainly a great premise for a movie and novel, which makes the fact that the novel has been adapted into a movie that gives no credit to Milius’ film kinda, well, ironic. “Tomorrow, When the War Began” the movie is based entirely on the first novel, with two more in the series set to be shot back-to-back for release in 2012 and 2013. The film has proven to be a hit in Australia, though time will tell if it has International appeal, especially with that “Red Dawn” remake all done and waiting for someone to release it. For Stateside residents who can’t wait, your best bet to find a copy is probably on Ebay or an overseas retailer like Amazon.co.uk (link below), though keep in mind they will be region-coded.
Stuart Beattie (director) / John Marsden (novel), Stuart Beattie (screenplay)
CAST: Caitlin Stasey … Ellie Linton
Rachel Hurd-Wood … Corrie Mackenzie
Lincoln Lewis … Kevin Holmes
Deniz Akdeniz … Homer Yannos
Phoebe Tonkin … Fiona Maxwell
Chris Pang … Lee Takkam
Ashleigh Cummings … Robyn Mathers
Andrew Ryan … Chris Lang