– Summary –
Director : Stuart Beattie
Year Of Release : 2010
Principal Cast : Caitlin Stasey, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Lincoln Lewis, Deniz Arkdeniz, Phoebe Tonkin, Chris Pang, Ashleigh Cummings, Andy Ryan, Colin Friels.
Approx Running Time : 110 Minutes
Synopsis: When an army from an unnamed Asian country invades Australia, a group of teenagers start the process of fighting back.
What we think : Well mounted film suffers from poor acting and terrible dialogue in its depiction of a fictional Australian town being overrun by an invading army. Based on the best selling book, Tomorrow When The War Began tries hard, stumbles occasionally, but finds its way through a corpse of a script to generate some minor excitement. While the concept of “kids fighting back” because they’ve been counted out isn’t new, here it’s done in a relatively believable manner, even if some of the plot points are terribly lame, and much of the dialogue falters fairly consistently. Worth a look for the best meta-reference to book-t0-screen translations I’ve ever seen.
What do you get when your cross an invading Asian army, a sextet of Aussie teenagers, a large amount of weaponry and some foolhardy romantic intentions? You get Tomorrow When The War Began, an Aussie-made action film based on the first of John Marsden’s bestselling 7-book saga, known as the Tomorrow Saga. Filmed in Australia, featuring a bevy of Aussie talent (and British actress Rachel Hurd-Wood, no stranger to Australian shores thanks to her role in the locally filmed Peter Pan) Tomorrow is the kind of blockbuster story our local film industry wishes they could make more of – if only they had the budget. While it’s rare to find an action film backed by Aussie money – most big budget blockbusters filmed here are usually funded by the deep pockets of Hollywood – I’m pleased to say Tomorrow When The War Began goes a long way to rectifying that imbalance. Does the film succeed, though? As a piece of action-centric filmmaking, is it good enough to stand alongside the Michael Bays and Steven Spielbergs of the world as an entertaining piece of escapist entertainment?
A group of Wirrawee teenagers trek out to an isolated location in the Australian bush, well away from their local town of Werriwee, in order to spend some time camping and having a good time. In the intervening period in which they’re away, Australia is invaded by an unnamed Asian Coalition army, who believe they have the right to the continent’s natural resources as a way of supporting their own increasing populations. Ellie (Caitlin Stasey), along with her best friend Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood), Corries new boyfriend Kevin (Lincoln Lewis), local dropkick Homer (Deniz Arkdeniz), local princess Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin), the daughter of the local Christian minister, Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings), and Lee (Chris Pang), who works at the local Thai restaurant, all have their own issues to deal with throughout the story of the invasion – namely coming to terms with their lives being uprooted, hormonal romance brewing even in the heat of danger, and the fact that their technological world has been usurped, leaving them with no phones, internet or other electronic devices. As they gather intelligence on their situation, they also meet up with local stoner Chris (Andy Ryan), whose house they use as a base temporarily. The group also learn that the invaders have captured a nearby coastal town of Cobblers Bay, the only entrance to being the Heron Bridge, which is strategically placed for them to destroy, cutting off the army’s supply chain.
Tomorrow When The War Began is effectively an ensemble piece. The disparate and seemingly disassociated characters are all thrust together into the nightmare of invasion, and the film’s telling moments come with the development of character arcs that typify normal human behavior in times of crisis. Ellie, who personifies the leadership of the group, doubts herself. Homer, who was considered to be a loser by most of the town, becomes a dependable warrior in this fight, although Kevin displays all the hallmarks of a classic self-preservationist coward. The deeply religious Robyn refuses to pick up a weapon to kill – she sees it as murder, even during wartime – while Lee feels emotionally isolated as the “outsider” of the group. The plot to Tomorrow isn’t anything revelatory (come to think of it, the similarities between this film and Red Dawn would be nearly a lawsuit just waiting to happen!), but what it does do is try and present a new, teen-centric angle on what it might be like for kids to have to go to war. The characters aren’t all that fresh, considering they’re almost entirely genre archetypes, but director Stuart Beattie keeps the film running at a pace where this isn’t a paramount issue.
The film’s production is certainly handsomely mounted. With a budget nearing $30 million, you can tell it’s been spent wisely on the screen – deserted half-destroyed towns, massive army troops and plenty of visual effects (jet fighters being shot down, houses exploding, etc) all ensure the film feels epic, although at the same time it feels somewhat intimate, thanks largely to the fact that we are seeing things entirely from Ellie’s perspective. A great truck chase through town, with Ellie pursued by two military vehicles with mounted machine guns, is exciting and well executed (I actually “whooped” at one point), as is the finale involving detonating a fuel tanker to destroy the Heron Bridge. You certainly can’t fault the production value of this film.
However, you can fault a clunky script. Some of the dialogue in this film is very, very ordinary, and most of that which is crud isn’t helped by some mediocre acting performances from the cast. The characters motivations are presented quite perfunctorily, lacking depth and a real heart to them, while the actors struggle to sound like anything other than a bunch of amateurs at times. The script tries to engender the sort of “we have nothing in common but we come together for the cause” storyline as it goes along, but the lack of development in each character mitigates any emotional resonance they have with the audience. The fact that the story encompasses so many characters, only one or two of whom we really care about, is perhaps a key element the film should have worked on. As mentioned, some of the dialogue is terribly written, nearly unnaturally so. Characters spout monologues about war and killing and planning and loss like they’ve been through it all before – there’s a sharp moment where our heroes stumble back to civilization not knowing what’s happening, and realizing what’s happening all too quickly; this jarring narrative shortcut indicates an unwillingness by Beattie to generate the sorrow and loss the characters needed to get them to fight back. The characters turn from teenage innocents to hard-bitten refugees from war in a matter of moments. Perhaps it’s all those Call of Duty games.
Headline actors Caitlin Stasey, formerly a soap star on Neighbours, and Lincoln Lewis, a Home & Away alumnus, do their best; Stasey’s no leading lady (always a problem when your main character is female) even with the right set of lines to learn. There’s no investment in her development other than her wandering eye for Chris Pang’s Lee – Pang produces a convincing performance but his chemistry with Stasey is non-existent. Rachel Hurd-Wood, who is probably the most accomplished of the young cast, is miscast as the “best friend” character of Corrie. She’s good, sure, but her character lacks development as well, and her story arc (at least within this film) is the least interesting. Deniz Arkdeniz, as the main comedy relief, has a terrific time bringing Homer to life – he’s alternatively mischievous, serious and resolute – and of all the characters in the film it’s he who travels the furthest emotionally. Phoebe Tonkin ditzes her way through the role of Fiona with a Paris Hilton-like innocence (she’s good), while Ashleigh Cummings, who local audiences will remember from the 2012 television series version of Puberty Blues, is the head-scratchingly overly-moral religious aspect of humanity. Cummings, like most in the cast, is let down by some wooden dialogue.
In sounding as condescending as I do, I’d describe Tomorrow When The War Began as a “good try”. It’s far from a perfect film, sure, but I daresay the true believers in John Marsden’s fanclub would be proud to see their characters up on the screen in such a positive way. While the cast and the scripting needed a good polish to get rid of the chaff, the film still contains that uniquely Australian sense of humor – there’s plenty of jokes and laughs to be had within what could have been a depressing storyline – because it’s our nature to laugh in the face of danger. While the humor doesn’t quite have the necessary offset of serious dramatic beats, at least of the kind to match the laughs, Tomorrow is a valiant effort and a decidedly above-average teen-centered action film which will entertain more than it doesn’t.