At first glance, Tomorrow, When the War Began — the filmic adaptation of the hugely popular teen fiction novel by John Marsden — appears to be a cheap Australian amalgam of Red Dawn and The Breakfast Club. Despite these superficial observations, this directorial debut for Stuart Beattie is a thrilling character-driven action-adventure film, and a top-notch home-grown Aussie blockbuster. It additionally marks the commencement of a film franchise which could easily rival the Twilight series in terms of quality and launch a number of international acting careers. Tomorrow, When the War Began is essentially Australia’s answer to the Hollywood blockbuster, as it boasts an attractive young cast, exhilarating action set-pieces, impressive special effects, and — just in case you begin to think that this is a Hollywood film — a scene in which Vegemite is consumed straight from the jar.
Like in Marsden’s novel, the film is narrated by one of the protagonists, Ellie Linton (Stasey). She is one of seven teenagers who head off for a weekend camping trip in an isolated spot known as Hell (which, ironically, turns out to be more like the Garden of Eden). Along for the trip is her best friend Corrie (Hurd-Wood), Corrie’s male interest Kevin (Lewis), Greek troublemaker Homer (Akdeniz), the prim & proper Fiona (Tonkin), the religious conservative Robyn (Cummings), and the shy but sweet Lee (Pang). Following the weekend, they return to their hometown of Wirrawee which has been mysteriously deserted. The group soon realize that Australia has been invaded by an indeterminate force, and the town has been conquered by soldiers. Faced with little options for survival, the teenagers band together and begin to wage a war of their own against the foreign invaders.
In the series of novels, Marsden never revealed the ethnicity or nationality of the foreign invaders, but in the film version they are seen to be Asian. The issue of nationality barely matters, though, as the point of the story is to observe the teens reacting to the foreign invasion. The soldiers are there, and it does not matter who they are. When the characters discuss the subject, one of them chimes in with “What difference does a flag make?” which serves to underline this notion. In addition, one of the protagonists is Asian, yet he is treated as an equal among the group. It would be ludicrous to read too far into the implications of Asian soldiers invading Australia.
Comparisons between Tomorrow, When the War Began and 1984’s Red Dawn are inevitable, as both films adhere to a basic premise of a group of teens using guerrilla-style tactics to overthrow an invading force. The similarities begin and end with this premise, however, as there is a massive difference in execution. While Red Dawn explicitly revealed that the Russians were invading and was nothing more than an over-the-top macho male fantasy, Tomorrow, When the War Began is a gritty actioner primarily concerned with characters and tension-building. Plus, its story is reminiscent of deep aspects of Australian social mythology: The ANZAC legend of good-natured locals who are willing to step up and fearlessly commit to war when the time calls for it. For his novel, Marsden retrofitted this legend in order to facilitate a gallery of new-age ideals, with boys and girls of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities constituting the new ANZAC force.
While adapting Marsden’s novel, writer-director Stuart Beattie was faced with challenge of attaining a delicate balance between character development and action, which is no easy task. Fortunately, Beattie did a sterling job of keeping a taut pace and developing the characters without dumbing down the material or including inconsequential action sequences. The story is engaging, and the characters are all fleshed-out well enough, which is a true achievement considering the number of protagonists. Each role was given a distinct personality, and it’s easy to grow to care about who lives and dies. Additionally, the young cast of actors are almost uniformly terrific. In particular, former Neighbours regular Caitlin Stasey executed her role of Ellie Linton with charismatic conviction. Another standout is Deniz Akdeniz, who is a naturally likeable screen presence as the loud-mouthed Homer. The only disappointment is newcomer Chris Pang as Lee — his dialogue delivery is often unconvincing, and his screen presence is borderline awkward. Also problematic is the clunky nature of the dialogue at times, and the fact that characters adhere to pretty standard, clichéd stereotypes. There is also a moment towards the film’s end involving Robyn that feels out-of-character, contrived and unmotivated.
Beattie cut his teeth as a Hollywood screenwriter, as his past credits include Collateral, 30 Days of Night, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. 2010’s Tomorrow, When the War Began is his debut as a director, and his inexperience is unnoticeable in the construction of the electrifying action scenes. Tension-building is terrific as well, with several nail-biting sequences throughout. The cinematography by Ben Nott (Daybreakers) is also phenomenal, and affords the film a look which belies its status as a low-budget $25 million Australian production. Tomorrow, When the War Began is definitely far more satisfying than most recent American blockbusters, including (but not limited to) Clash of the Titans, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and The A-Team. Despite all the talent behind the camera, though, the film is not perfect — despite being trained soldiers, the enemies cannot shoot straight. While this could be forgiven if the film was designed as a big dumb actioner, it was intended to be more of a character-driven piece than an action fiesta.
As a whole, Tomorrow, When the War Began is a terrific motion picture, and a far more satisfying blockbuster than most films produced by Hollywood of late. The film’s well-executed action set-pieces are well-balanced with character building moments and potent themes about morality in wartime and loss of innocence (including a passing reference to the white invasion of Aboriginal Australia). There’s even a bit of welcome humor. No doubt fans of the book will perpetually look for things to complain about, but the film is solid and highly enjoyable as a standalone feature. As expected, room is left wide open for a sequel, yet this is one of those rare films which will leave audiences desiring a sequel. In a year of strong Aussie movies (including Beneath Hill 60 and Animal Kingdom), Tomorrow, When the War Began is up there with the best.