Film review – Tomorrow, When the War Began (2010)

Tomorrow, When the War Began: Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey)
Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey)

At first glance the film adaptation of author John Marsden’s hugely popular Australian teen fiction novel Tomorrow, When The War Began resembles a cross between Red Dawn and The Breakfast Club. A group of teenagers – including a princess, a bad boy, a jock and a studious kid – go camping and when they return to their country-town homes they discover Australia has been invaded by an unidentified Asian army. However, this film is more than the sum of its parts and scriptwriter Stuart Beattie (Collateral, Pirates of the Caribbean, Australia) in his directorial début has delivered a thrilling character-driven action/adventure film.

Beattie handles the action magnificently throughout the film with Ben Nott’s (Daybreakers, Accidents Happen) expert cinematography and the incredibly effective sound design facilitating several thrilling moments. The sheer exhilaration of several key scenes considerably compensates for some of the less plausible elements of the film concerning the remarkable speed in which some of the characters adapt to the situation. The Australian teenage characters display an incredible degree of resourcefulness, clarity and perceptiveness; not to mention aptitude for driving heavy vehicles and handling automatic weapons – even for kids who’ve grown up on a farm.

Tomorrow, When the War Began: Kevin Holmes (Lincoln Lewis), Homer Yannos (Deniz Akdeniz) and Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey)
Kevin Holmes (Lincoln Lewis), Homer Yannos (Deniz Akdeniz) and Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey)

The emotional journey that the characters go on is completely genuine and engaging, and that level of ‘reality’ is far more interesting. The group dynamics are convincing and the young cast do an excellent job fleshing out their characters.  In particular, the main character Ellie Linton is a fantastic action hero, acted with charismatic conviction by former Neighbours regular Caitlin Stasey. It’s just a pity that these naturally attractive actors have unnecessarily good hair and model-like make-up throughout the entire film so that when they start getting dishevelled and roughed-up, they look more like they’ve adopted Derek Zoolander’s ‘Derelicte’ look.

The major issue with Tomorrow, When the War Began is the representation of the Asian invaders. There is a scene where one character states that it doesn’t matter who the invaders are or what country they have come from – the point is that they have invaded Australia and that’s all the characters and the audience need to know. (There is even an acknowledgement that Australia has been invaded once before.) But if the invaders are merely plot devices without political implications then why represent them as being so specifically one particular race? Why not make them completely nondescript? In the extremely unlikely scenario that Australia is ever invaded then those invaders would probably be from a nearby country (most of which are Asian) but this is not a realistic film so maintaining that ‘authenticity’ is not necessary. Evoking Australian cultural anxieties over the fear of a specifically Asian invasion without addressing the issues that it raises is problematic and a little bit careless.

Nagging concerns about the questionable subtext aside, Tomorrow, When the War Began is an intelligent blockbuster that holds its own with most of Hollywood’s recent output. Hopefully it will be popular enough to generate a franchise based on the rest of the books in Marsden’s series but with the future films showing perhaps a little more grittiness and definitely a little less naivety in how it represents the invaders.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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  1. Not much of a review (and your English teacher must weep every time she hears your name if you can’t tell the difference between types of stories told in TWTWB and Red Dawn).
    The main problem though is devoting a third of the review to the race of the invaders. Completely missing the point is what makes Margaret Pomeranz such a poor reviewer. Welcome to the club.

  2. John, although I have not yet seen the film, I think Thomas is right on the money to discuss the depiction of the invaders at length. What would YOUR English teacher say about your complete unwillingness to discuss subtext? To read between the lines and see what the film is ACTUALLY saying?

    It is the job of a film reviewer to peel back the layers and examine where a film succeeds and fails. According to Thomas, the film fails by attempting to make the villain a generic Asian race, and thus lazily taking advantage of Australia’s latent “yellow peril” and making ALL of Asia seem like the oppressor, rather than a small, militant faction. Yeah, that sounds unsettling (and certainly worthy of discussion) to me. (Thomas, correct me if I’ve misread you).

    Again, I am seeing the film tonight, so I can’t say whether or not I agree with Thomas on the film’s depiction of the invaders. But a discussion about the way race is represented is AS essential as any other element in the film.

  3. I’m sorry you didn’t like my review John but thanks for reading it and taking the time to comment anyway.

    I do want to point out that I’m reviewing the film and not the novel and I said “at first glance” the film Tomorrow, When the War Began resembles Red Dawn. I then qualified that in the same paragraph by saying that Tomorrow, When the War Began is “more than the sum of its part”. I go on to describe how I found it intelligent and character-driven in my generally positive review.

    Yes, I devoted a substantial part of my review to address the issue of race because I couldn’t ignore it and wanted to discuss the issue properly, rather than simply dismiss it with a couple of throw-away sentences. I don’t think that the filmmakers intended for that issues to be that pronounced but for the reasons I outline in my review, it has become so and I wanted to comment on that.

  4. I’ve seen the film and Thomas’s review is spot-on. The issue of race is, as Simon and Thomas say, a completely valid discussion point, and one that a lot of people will be talking about when the film comes out.

    I think the issue of hiding the invaders’ faces is a very tricky one, and the film goes to great lengths to keep them nondescript, acutely aware that it could trip over the line into racist fear-mongering at any moment. It would be impossible for a film such at this one to avoid that sort of implied subtext, but to its credit it makes every effort to keep its distance. A nondescript “Asian Coalition” is the oppressor so that no ire is aroused towards any particular nation (Indonesia, China). From that angle, the vagueness is admirable. The only moment we see a close-up of an invader’s face is a sympathetic moment.

    John, if Thomas missed the point, praytell what *is* the point?

    [CINEMA AUTOPSY – Sorry Lee: this comment got lost in my spam filter for some reason, which is why it is appearing over 24 hours after you posted it (31 August 2010, 2:45pm)]

  5. Oh I love people who comment on things they haven’t even seen. Simon, look very closely tonight and you will see a variety of races among the invaders. Sure, many of them are Asian (It’s not as if we are about to be invaded by Antarctica. Further, Marsden gave plenty of hints that the invaders were Asian and even dedicated one of the books to the peoples of Tibet and Timor).
    The fact that some people only see the Asians is because THEY are latent racists falling over themselves to demonstrate otherwise. These are the same people who fail to note that of the 4 main male characters, only two are heroic and one of them IS ASIAN!
    Now, I’m getting bogged down in the irrelevant stuff!
    Thomas (in a more gracious reply than my heated comments deserved) points out that it is character driven story. Exactly. The the very war itself (and by extension the invaders) is just a plot device in a coming of age story. Think Star Wars or any other version of the “Hero Returns” and you’ll be on the right track.

  6. Simon wasn’t commenting on the film John, he was commenting on my right to explore a subtext that I felt is worth exploring.

    You raise some interesting issues but I am only talking about the film, which can take or leave aspects of the novel as it sees fit and where issues of representation are different.

    The Lee Takkam character is absolutely a great character and played wonderfully by Chris Pang. However, I regarded him as part of the great ensemble and at no point did I say to myself “oh, he is Asian therefore everything is all right”. I think he serves a higher purpose in the film than to be the “good Asian” character.

    Until now nobody had been accusing anybody of being racist so it’s a shame you’ve brought that into the discussion. And no, I don’t believe that finding the representation of the invaders to be problematic makes me a latent racist at all.

    I wish this stuff didn’t nag me so much because otherwise this is a great film and a great, as you say, coming-of-age and hero-returns story about teenagers. But basically, for me, it is simply a very enjoyable film with well-developed characters, exciting action and it left me wanting more.

  7. Thomas.
    If I don’t back off now I’ll just become a troll and I don’t mean to be. I very rarely post on blogs but as a fan I’ve read too much on these subjects elsewhere so shouldn’t be venting in a place that is at the more reasonable end.
    And you’re right if your concern is that rednecks will use the Asian angle for their own ends but self flagellating isn’t much use either.
    Of more use is putting the subject strictly in context, both quantity and quality. So, on a purely “movie review” criterion this has been blown out of all proportion. Thus the Pomeranz comment stands. Sorry but if the cap fits…..

  8. Well, I’m not a fan, I have no vested interest in the books or the film and I don’t write the sorts of reviews that simply try to summarise the main plot points and general issues – I’m a film critic who analyses films in the way that I feel is appropriate and of interest to myself and the readers that I’ve built up as a result; especially when I’m doing so on my own blog.

    And I’m more than happy to be compared to Margaret Pomeranz so thank you.

  9. @John

    Thanks for completely misreading my comment AND dismissing Thomas’ thoughtful review. Perhaps I shouldn’t have commented, considering how I am yet to see the film (even though I expressly mentioned that and in no way offered a critique of the film myself).

    I guess I just get infuriated when people hate on reviewers for simply …. reviewing a film. If you don’t like people reading into movies/art, or coming up with their own interpretations and reaching certain conclusions (a’la Caldwell, Pomeranz, Ebert, White, Scott, Phillips, Kael, Sarris and any other critic worth their salt), I can’t imagine why you would read ANY review in the first place.

  10. I too am yet to see the movie but I am a great fan of the book. The reviewer is correct to be critical of the portrayal of the invaders as Asian WITHOUT the film makers further development of that plot subtext and an accompanying position whether it be a moralistic one or one with more sinister and racial undertones.
    The book made a huge effort to avoid this trap and therefore did not detract from the main thrust of the story with a pointless trip down a confusing and emotive side path.
    If you are going to lead an elephant into a room, don’t just leave it there; elaborate on its presence.

    [CINEMA AUTOPSY – Sorry Stephen: your comment is another one that got lost in my apparently over-ruthless spam filter, which is why it is appearing over 24 hours after you posted it (31 August 2010, 2:50pm)]

  11. John,

    I kindly ask that you leave me out of this or else I shall have no choice but to stab you with my earrings.


    [CINEMA AUTOPSY EDIT – Ha ha ha! Just so that nobody gets into trouble, I should just mention that this is clearly not the real Margaret Pomeranz!]

  12. It’s an Australian film with AND it has a big budget so instantly all Australian film-goers must support it this little battler of a big film, i think not. This thing Looks more like Australias answer to Twilight minus the vampires. I’ll give this a miss. Aussie reviewer’s are a biased lot, when it comes to Aussie films.

  13. Tomorrow, When the War Began is nothing like the Twilight films so it’s not Australia’s answer to those films at all, other than it also being based on a popular teen novel franchise.

    While there are certainly some Australian critics who maybe do go a little too easy on Australian films, most of the critics I know tend to be very harsh since they love and are proud of the local industry so don’t want to settle for mediocrity.

    Maybe see the film first before making inaccurate sweeping generalisations.

  14. Wow, what a debate!

    I haven’t seent the film yet, but will make comment what I expect to see (or not see in the film).

    As Stephen pointed out Marsden went to great lenghts to not name any specific race as the invaders. He did elude on several occasions throughout the 10 books to an Asian race, but this was never confirmed.

    Since it was announced that the film was to be made many blogs were alive with wonder as to how the film was going to stick to this part of the books.
    And although I haven’t seen it yet, from the reviews I have read, they seem to have done just that.

    I understand that a lot of people who see this film may not have read the book but in the end, a fan such as myself would much rather watch the film knowing why they do ‘hide’ the nationalities rather than watch the film wondering why they have changed it so much. Again just my opinion!

    And thanks for the review, I thought it was good.

  15. Come on guys, it’s simple geography. Any conceivable modern military invasion of Australia is going to come from Asia. The premise of the film is that Australia is invaded. Ergo, the invaders are Asian. Get over it. Any other depiction (or going to great lengths to avoid depiction) would have been ridiculous.

    Sorry, I just don’t buy “this is not a realistic film so maintaining that ‘authenticity’ is not necessary”.

  16. The geography argument is obviously the main argument and the best argument in favour of the representation of the invaders in the film as Asian but it’s still uncomfortable to watch the way it visually expresses the “Yellow Peril” type paranoia that once fuelled things like the White Australia policy. I’m not saying it’s an issue that should never be addressed and I’m not saying that the filmmakers have acted maliciously; just maybe a little naively. So I maintain that since it is a fictional film with high degrees of improbability and not a documentary then an alternative way of representing the invaders would have been preferable to generic Asian hordes.

  17. The Military experts Janes have predicted Australia will be invaded by an Asian nation within 100 years. The potrayal of Asian solideiers is completely realistic. It would have been Polical Correctness USSR style to make the invaders polygenic, like as if the Lord of the Rings had placed Asains and Africans among the elves and the Rohan in the film version. Racism-phobes would have not made an issue of this if the invaders were Caucasian.

  18. I just saw TWTWB and I thought it was pretty great and stayed true to the spirit of the books. I was aprehensive going into it, as a huge fan of the books when I was a teen.

    I was curious to see how they would depict the invaders and agree with your comments about it potentially tapping into negative Australian fears and prejudices. I don’t know how this could have been tackled without fabricating a complicated backstory, and inventing a reason why our asian neighbours weren’t helping us defeat the faceless invaders from wherever else, because logically, if they aren’t the agressors, they’re certain to be next on the list of countries to invade.

    In the books, what was happening in the outside world was never important. The political implications, or even what was going on in Sydney was inconsequential to the main thrust of the story. Marsden encapsulated a little world in Wirrawee and Cobblers Bay and the implausability of the rest of the real-world politics wasn’t addressed and it didn’t really need to be as the focus is on these young peoples experiences. It’s easier to avoid putting a face to the enemies in a book. An interesting (albeit obvious) tip of the hat by the director to the events of 1788.

  19. @Jon – sorry, but judging from the bizarre content of your comment I don’t think you’re in any position to pass judgement on what constitutes as reality. I even debated if I should publish what you said since you make a pretty wild and unsubstantiated claim, but I decided to let it go through unedited because what you’ve said and how you’ve said it pretty much prevents anybody from taking you seriously.

    And for the record – yep, portraying the invaders as Caucasian would have been fine because Caucasians are not a racial minority in Australia who have been subjected to prejudice, persecution and violence as a result.

    Finally, your use of the expression “Racism-phobe” suggests to me that you see people who are disgusted by racism to be worthy of insult and contempt, since you use the expression in a derogative manner. Case closed.

  20. @Jess – thanks for you insight into how the issue plays out in the books and as I suspected it actually wasn’t an issue in the books because Marsden was able to avoid identifying the invaders so overtly. You’re right – it was always going to be tricky in the film and a fabricated backstory would have been tedious and detracted from the main focus.

    However, given that the invaders are nearly always filmed at a distance then I do think they could have got away with obscuring their features through the use of camera positioning, lighting and even costumes. That way they would have just been unidentifiable invaders, we wouldn’t be having this discussion about representations of race in cinema (as revealing and interesting as it is!) and the focus would be 100% on the teenage characters, as it should have been and was intended to be.

  21. I’ve just got an idea… since the general consensus is that it is an Asian country that invades Australia (in the book series and movie), why can’t it be North Korea?! It doesn’t have to be China. The media has always portrayed North Korea as a scary, crazy, communist sort of country. And since no one living in Australia is from a North Korean background (probably), no one has to be offended! They should just make the enemy country North Korea!

  22. TC @ 8:03pm, hmmm, you may think the race depiction invokes shades of the White Australia policy, but the approach you’re suggesting is essentially to dehumanise the enemy. I’m not sure that’s an idea with a terribly sound pedigree, either.

    In any case, avoiding the issue would just be delaying the inevitable. Don’t forget there are half a dozen or so sequels ready to go if TWTWB is any sort of commercial success. In at least one of those, there’d be no getting around the need to show the face of the invader.

  23. I’m guessing these faceless hoardes who wear sunny’s 24/7 originated from sussex street,sydney. They are not asians at all,it’s the Australian defense force initiating a Coup d’état.

  24. @Mark – But according to everybody who has read the novels, the identity of the enemy is not important as the focus is on the actions, reactions, motivations and personal development of the teenage characters in the face of what has happened. And that’s the impression that the film wants to gives too. The invaders are already dehumanised as they are simply plot devices and we don’t get any insight into them at all. So, yes, I’d rather them be an anonymous dehumanised enemy than what they currently are, which is a dehumanised enemy identified as Asian hordes.

    And apparently that’s the way it is across all the novels as the issue was never about the who and the why but what the teenager character did about it.

  25. Agreed; it’s not the FACT that they are Asian invaders that is the problem. It is the way in which Beattie constructs them, and in a way asks us to see the parallels between them and regular immigrants.

    A character exclaims something along the lines of “how dare they come to our country and steal what our parents worked so hard to make.” Hmm, dodgy.

    As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care WHO invades Australia (in the context of the film). It’s meant to be an escapist, “what if” action film. What is bothersome is the way in which Beattie asks us to “ignore” their race, BUT, still injects the film with allusions and parallels that call for a deeper reading (including a bizarre nod to British settlers’ relationship with the indigenous population). A deeper reading reveals troublesome, vaguely offensive digs at Australia’s relationship with Asia.

    So yeah, in this case, a dehumanised enemy (free of subtext, if possible) would be more appropriate.

  26. In regards to the necessity to keep a fictionalised story grounded in authenticity I agree with the depiction of an Asian army in TWTWB movie (despite the non descript nature, but allusion to an Asian invasion in the novels, see The Dead of the Night)
    The only other nationality in close proximity is NZ; besides the fact that their population has already migrated to Australia, NZ is featured within the TWTWB story universe; to change that would be a large contridiction to Marsden’s story which Beattie himself, as a fan of the novels, set out to avoid.

  27. Personally whenever I play Risk I always try to get a foothold in Australia just because you know it’s a great place to hold out if all else fails… or it might be because I’m British and it makes me feel nostalgic.

  28. I went to see the movie last night and have already given my opinion to poor Thomas in a series of 140 character tweets.

    As a teacher, I have read these books to what seem like countless generations of students (okay,probably about 10 classes all up, but it seems like more). Showing both my age and my background (Cold War Kid more or less), I had always seen the invaders in my mind as an Eastern bloc country and interestingly had never seen them as Asian. I’m not sure what that says about me! A teaching point I always made was that Marsden never told us the nationality of the invaders.

    So I had misgivings about the portrayal of the invaders being Asian and it’s probably the part of the movie that was slightly hollow for me. I could see *why* Beattie did it, but it felt like a mis-step.

    Anyway – I thought it was a good movie and I’m glad I saw it. I will say that it concertina-ed action that took place over months into what seemed like days. It left out a lot of philosophising, thinking, internal dialogue, arguing and talking. It jammed all the exciting bits of the story into the movie (and when I mentioned that to my students, the boys’ eyes lit up like a Christmas tree).

    However, it was honest to the basic intent of the book and was a rollicking, ripping action-packed blast of a movie. And my boys were also relieved to know there was minimal kissing.

  29. Hey guys,

    I’ve finally seen it today, I was very amaze how it went, waited a longtime for this to be made ever since I picked up the book in grade 9.

    Although I liked it, I left the cinema very annoyed, I can’t stand it when every time the screen goes to an Asian character, all I can hear is scoff or a f (that ch***, go**, slan**) from some guy above me, even Lee wasn’t spared especially his moments with Ellie.

    The portrayal of Asian soldiers as ruthless and merciless all though its a fact that I can’t deny because it’s true to some degree especially for people who have ever fought in Asia. But that doesn’t mean we are not human.

    I don’t maybe I’m paranoid at the moment. All I can say about its was that it was enjoyable and interesting. The best out of Australia so far.

    Just Hope people up North don’t take it to hard more comments here

  30. Well the invaders are not Japanese; in the novels it mentions that Japan is one of the nations who express disgust at the whole situation. It really narrows the field as to which country could be the invaders, so I am also of the belief that the director should have named the opposing country; it would have saved all this debating and unrest amongst its viewers. I enjoyed the books and it never bothered me that the invaders were not labeled a specific nationality, however after watching the movie even I felt like it should have been cleared up. Maybe if a second movie is made, this issue will be brought to light.

  31. After finally seeing TWTWB I generally feel that, while the filmmakers were caught between the proverbial rock and hard place when it comes to the portrayal of the invaders, they tried to act responsibly, but could have done more.

    @Thomas – you say that the enemy is dehumanised, but a large part of the emotional journey of the teens is what it means to kill another human. The film certainly attempted to portray this, and embodied it even further in Robyn’s character arc. In the books Ellie in particular often reflects on parallels between the invaders and themselves, including that many of the soldiers are young and inexperienced. I would argue that completely obscuring the invaders would rob the film of this valuable aspect (aside from, as others have said, creating genuine problems in adapting more of the series).

    I am, however, entirely in favour of avoiding race-based scaremongering wherever possible, and I feel that TWTWB missed an opportunity when it, as @Janie said:
    “left out a lot of philosophising, thinking, internal dialogue, arguing and talking.”
    In the book, there is both reflection and discussion on why the invasion has taken place, with the general conclusions that greater political awareness wouldn’t have gone astray, and that maybe if Australia had been more generous with resources the invasion wouldn’t have happened. I would have been happier if there was a greater emphasis on this humanitarian aspect.

    Personally, though, my biggest irk with the adaptation was how the teens morphed into gun-toting guerrillas when in the book they agree not to carry guns, and there is a lot of arguing when Homer breaks that agreement.

  32. Sensational comment Jordi.

    I haven’t got much to add other than to say that I think I now agree with you that the invaders did need to be identified for the reasons you state. But as you and Janie said (in another excellent comment) a lot the nuances of the novel seem to have been left out, which would have allowed that identification to have been explored with more responsibility, awareness, sophistication and complexity. Also, the intense militarisation of the teenagers worried me too so thanks for bring that up and pointing out that it’s not exactly like that in the novel.

    Thanks again to you, Janie and many of the others for bringing such a high standard of discussion to this issue!

  33. Hi,

    I just read your review and thought your political correctness conniptions amounted to foolish fretting. Tell me, if the invaders had been shown as Russians, a la Red Dawn, would you have batted an eyelid?

    Movies are always going to be less allegorical than novels, due to the nature of the media. Your silly implication that because the movie isn’t realistic that it should have somehow resorted to some sort of surreal depiction of the enemy makes me roll my eyes.
    It’s a movie – let the directors go where they want with it.

    Unfortunately, I found your review told me more about you than about the movie, which I’m looking forward to seeing, btw.

  34. I don’t understand the general consensus on this thread that the nationality of the invaders was not an issue in Marsden’s book(s), but is in the movie – I should add that I’ve only read the first of the series, and haven’t yet seen the film.

    I was troubled by the very premise of the book – that Australia is invaded by an unnamed hostile force. This is surely fraught with problems, none of which were addressed, for me at least, by Marsden’s tactic of avoiding identifying the invaders. Not only did I find this unacceptably contrived – it also seem a copout. The argument that an invading force would not necessarily be Asian is surely forced beyond credibility. Of course any surprise overnight invasion has to come from a neighbouring country, which leads to an obvious conclusion that they are Asian. Nothing else makes any logical sense.

    From here, it is inevitable that charges are going to be levelled at Marsden of tapping into Australia’s much-publicised but exaggerated xenophobia – and those charges are nigh on impossible to defend! All the rhetorical weight that goes along with that sort of reading of the novel is in part counterbalanced by the very valid notion that a writer should be free to explore whatever s/he wishes, without having to bow to liberal correctness. However, with that freedom comes a responsibility not to duck the hard stuff – and it’s my contention that Marsden has here.

    I imagine that the comments above apply also to the film based on the novel, but not having seen it, I can’t be sure of this. Whatever, just wanted to make the point that not everyone read the book without being niggled by the sorts of concerns Thomas has raised in his review.

  35. I can see a bit of the race issue poking around here, so I thought I’d address that…

    Thomas, I think you’re actually wrong on the race issue. I think your misapprehension falls with the assumption that the film’s not meant to be realistic. I think that was actually the intent; I know it was of the book and my main reason for liking the film is that it portrays realistically (well, to the extent possible) a likely reaction from a group of teenagers to the invasion of Australia. The suspension of disbelief really ends with the idea that a coalition of neighbouring nations could successfully overcome our border defences and “invade” (and I don’t think that’s altogether unbelievable).

    The representation of the invaders as Asian is necessary solely because it is the most believable. It does ring true, that if Australia was invaded, it would come from the north. The extent that it scares us about an Asian invasion is probably to the extent that I Robot makes us concerned about artificial intelligence.

    I also think it would also confuse the viewers if the soldiers were vaguely European or a motley crew of different groups. The question would then be “Are they Americans? Are they the Kiwis? Has there been an Australian coup?”. To maintain the concept of otherness, they need to portray the group as looking clearly “other”, even if it fiddles with sensitivities about the ethnicity issue. You don’t want your viewers coming out saying “What the hell happened? Why didn’t they explain why the Americans were invading?”, particularly when your film is, for the greater part, about the characters and not really the invasion itself.

  36. I feel the whole narrative is a bit dated. It is unfortunate that mainstream cinema always seem to be read literally. It’s one of the most benign features of the art form. The film totally trades in white-Australian anxieties by Othering non-Australians in a literal medium. Gone is the concealing literary tropes of Marsden’s novels. This is essentially racist. It is almost undeniably racist (to all those arguing about if the race of the invaders is important or not). It speaks perfectly with mid-90s Australian race conflicts.

    The same way The Hurt Locker requires a racist fear (American/Middle-eastern Other) in order to be dramatic.

    I think the issue is if we think that’s okay or not?
    I’m sure many will disagree with this but to contradict it is on par with; “I’m not racist but…”

    I find it odd that this anxiety still has currency amongst the young people of today. It’s a very dated anxiety. Or it should be. Contemporary English teachers that still program the novel without a sense of irony are SIMPLY LAZY. They should probably take a refresher course in their lesson content. With a wonderful body of cinema from Unfinished Sky to Lucky Miles offer far more contemporary representations of white-Australia’s new place in a poly-ethnic, contemporary Australia.

    The novel is an artefact of a much more hysterical moment in this country’s history (ignoring Mr. Abbot’s current exploitation of racial paranoia and invasion that would make Howard blush). The film seems to be a mere foray into fuelling the nostalgia industry. It is the Australian A-Team (without the knowing wink).

    It’s about time the school syllabus caught up. The movie IS racist in that it is a symptom of it. Many things are in contemporary Australia are.

    I just wish we could recognize it.

    In a post-Avatar world, these kind of stories should not work unless they have Carmen Electra in them.

    Also the script was absolute poo.

    But, the actresses were hot.

  37. Given that it is Asian nations such as Indonesia and China who only 50 or 60 years ago threw off centuries of white racist oppression by white invaders, it is ironic that Australian whites (invaders themselves) choose to make a movie depicting the true victims of Western imperialism (up to recently anyway) as invaders.

    A writer, while free to write what he wants, has to do so in a responsible manner. We live in the real world, and that world is one in which white people have fucked over non-white people for so long – and we have to live with the legacy of that.

    And make no mistake. Asians will see this film for what it is. Naked racist propaganda.

    If China made a similar film about invasion by a Western nation such as the US or Australia, you would have all the Westerners out complaining about rabid Chinese nationalism. But thankfully, China has never done this, even though they have in fact been invaded so many times in the past by white nations.

    Interestingly why are there no Aborigine Australians in the cast??? Surely they are the true authentic original ‘Australians’?

    If Germans made a film showing hypothetical Jewish invaders of Germany, would the Jewish people feel offended? Of course!

    Because it would be an inversion of historical reality, and be seen as a way to rewrite history, to cast the former oppressor in a good light, and the victim in a bad light.

    Asians have been subject to invasion and exploitation from the West for centuries.
    To make a movie where they are portrayed as invaders of a Western nation, is a complete inversion of who should feel threatened by who. Asian countries like China have every right to feel threatened by the West.

    What have Indonesians and Chinese ever done to Australians, in order to be villified the way they are?

    The answer is nothing.

    Imagine if Japan made a wildly popular movie showing Japan being invaded by Australians. Would Australians feel comfortable about this? Of course bloody not!

    Anyone who claims that Tomorrow, When the War Began will not create anti-Asian feeling in Australia has lost touch with reality.

    Again I ask. Where are the aborigine actors?

    Or have they become so marginalized by the people who really did invade Australia, that they are completely ignored by the film and entertainment industry?

    Even when producing a film about Aussie ‘pride’ and ‘nationalism’?

    [CINEMA AUTOPSY: This is three sets of comments, left very closely together, that I’ve combined into a single comment.]

  38. Wayne,

    You’ve basically agreed with the arguments I put forward – ie: that the invaders cannot logically be other than Asian, that Marsden is tapping into Australian xenophobia, and that a writer should not be constrained by PC bullshit, but has a responsibility not to duck the hard stuff (as I contend Marsden has here).

    However, in adopting such an extreme stance and going way over the top in your rhetoric, you detract from the credibility of the points you make!

    It might not be the case, but in expressing yourself so intemperately, you come across as some emotionally charged up undergraduate in love with his own radicalism. Balance is the key, mate! Simmer down, put your adult hat on, draw a deep breath and…this time, without feeling!

  39. Asian invaders, they could well be from The Philippines! LOL On a serious note, I can only think of one country that can invade and wipe out the Australian military in matter of days single-handedly. That’s none other than of course the United States. Chinese military invasion is laughable, much more Indonesian. Russia is probably more acceptable. With no disrespect, I’d say the plot is close to being ridiculous and nonsense. The only way Asian invasion is possible at this age would be through cultural and economic means. I’d been to Australia a few times and I could see that happening and at an accelerated rate. Well, Australia’s been invaded once so history will repeat itself but not necessarily in exactly the same way. Probably this film just symbolises the hope placed on the Australian youth who are fighting back all this “counter-invasion” from Asia to the Western civilization… in universities, shopping malls, offices, resorts etc.

  40. Hi Darth. I appreciate the sentiments in the first part of your comment but as for the second part are you seriously suggesting that Australia is slowly being indoctrinated by some homogenous Asian force? For a start, there is no single ‘Asian’ culture and secondly I highly doubt that the filmmakers are endorsing the Australian youths who are ‘fighting back’ at the perceived dilution of Australian culture (whatever that is). In fact, those Australian youths who ‘fight back’ are an embarrassment to the country and usually dismissed as the racist nationalists that they are.

  41. China’s population: 1,324,655,000
    Australia’s population: 21,431,800

    They could probably invade us even without guns if they felt so inclined.

    In regard to the review, I thought it was reasonably accurate. I’m feeling the same as everyone else about race though.. I’m not sure it was as much an issue as its made out to be. And when it comes down to it, the main cast are varied racially..

    On a positive note, I’m glad you mentioned the characters’ emotional journey.. You hit the nail right on the head :)

    All in all a good review – keep up the good work!

  42. I am yet to see this movie and am really keen to do so but I have to say, my initial joy that they had turned this wonderful book into a movie at long last was tempered when I saw the end of the trailer and the ridiculous assortment of weapons they are all toting. I know it is bad form to comment on a movie you are yet to see, but from the perspective of a lover of the books I have to say that I found the use of guns in the trailer alone quite disturbing as the characters in the book rarely use weapons, do not carry them for very specific reasons, and when they do use them, use standard “farm” weapons like old shotguns. The fact that the movie posters depict them carrying automatic weapons (and… was that a rocket launcher?) really irritated me as that is not what the books were about (quite the contrary) and this seems to me a very American action movie way of translating a brilliant, layered story to the screen.

    I can only hope that they have maintained the heavier emotional aspects of the story – the breakdowns and suffering of the teenagers as one by one they come to terms with what is happening. Are Corrie & Ellie’s separate breakdowns portrayed? Ellie’s complete physical, mental & emotional shutdown after her actions result in deaths for the first time? I hope so, because that is what makes the books so powerful and real.

    In regards to the Asian forces, again, it is hard to say without seeing the movie myself but I would imagine that a completely faceless enemy would detract from their humanity – so that when they are killed they become almost like video game hits – meaningless. The books often describe elements of the army being very young or old and inexperienced, and at times absolutely terrified – something that I can’t imagine could be portrayed via a faceless enemy. Also, if the later books are made into movies they will have to show faces as there are much closer encounters with and indeed relationships of various kinds with the enemy in the later books.

    I understand the criticism in terms of not exploring the motives of the invaders further, however if the movie follows the book, it is told purely from the point of view of teenagers in the country who are completely cut off and know very little about the politics of what is going on. There are allusions to politicians screaming on TV prior to the camping trip and Ellie offers up some thoughts on the subject – that we (Australia) had so much and didn’t share enough, etc. However, these issues are not deeply explored in the books due to the limitations of the point of view and I think the books are better for not delving too deeply into complicated political issues that the average teenager wouldn’t be too highly aware of.

    In any case… still looking forward to the movie – thanks for the review.

    Oh and Wayne? I think your comments are really over the top. Why are there no Aboriginal characters? Because the story is focused on a small group of teens in the country, not representatives of Australia as a multi-cultural society; and because it is based on a novel that does not depict an Aboriginal character. It is an adaptation of a well-loved book and I hardly think randomly forcing an Aboriginal character into an existing story for the sake of being politically correct would be beneficial to anyone – Aborigines included. The story isn’t about Aussie pride and nationalism – it is about how a group of ordinary teenagers react when they find themselves in an extreme situation. It’s not like they’re waving flags and singing the national anthem.

    What a bizarre rant.

    Racist propaganda? My goodness. Yes I’m sure everyone who sees the movie will be out bashing their Asian neighbors the next day. The fact that one of the main “heroes” is Asian aside, I don’t think that anyone watching this thinks that an Asian invasion of Australia is a realistic scenario in the near future. And as for igniting “yellow hatred”, I imagine the only people who would be influenced in this way are those who are already racist and xenophobic and simply search for excuses to show it.

  43. Reading all this was Fun. But Why did u guys bother.
    Here is my thought. This film was made to entertain!? So does it really matter who is declaring war on who?
    Is it worth watching, that’s what I want to know.

  44. I think you’ve misunderstood the point of film criticism Keno; at least the type of film criticism that I try to write and the majority of readers who come here want to read. Maybe read this article (don’t worry, it’s short) to get a better idea of where I am coming from before deciding if you want to keep visiting here.

  45. Keno,

    Seems you’re implying that for you the ONLY function of any film is to entertain. So, a movie that presents Hitler as a hero, say, and ignores historical fact to create a real entertaining little number is alright by you?

    How about bringing back gladiators? The purpose of having two trained slaves fight to the death before a betting public was to entertain.

    I’d suggest your comment above is naive in the extreme.

  46. This has to be one of the many other films where millions of dollars has been spent on CRAP. Firt off, how in the world do Producers bulls*t their way to getting money from invester? And 2, how in the world could you accept this from the editors floor in going to the cinemas?

    In the 70’s & 80’s aussie movie makers were at their peak in the international market. To me it seems you have to be a mommys boy and they’ll throw the money at you to do whatever you want! Including making “When the war started”.

    The film is a bomb and nothing else.

  47. I’ve just watched the movie and it’s left my son and I trying to comprehend how anyone could think it was even almost good. The film lacked authenticity, depth, imagination, acting ability, plot, interest and just about anything else that makes a good film. The best part about it was when it ended. I found it intolerable to sit through, constantly telling myself it will get better and there must be some kind of intelligent twist somewhere to justify the way people have raved about it. If there are seven books, you can rest assured I now wouldn’t read even one. This was the biggest load of boring teenage crap I’ve seen in a long long while. It was nothing but a mix of McLeod’s Daughters goes Neighbours with guns against the Yellow Peril. At the point where we were meant to believe that Australia was invaded over a weekend the movie lost all credibility as entertainment. It was more annoying than entertaining and I just wish people would tell the truth and raise the standard so we can stop embarrassing ourselves in the world market. Sadly, it seems my US screen writing lecturer friend was right when he said 10 years ago that Australians cannot writer film scripts.

  48. It never ceases to amaze me how people can personally dislike one Australian film (or two, or three or more) and therefore conclude that the entire Australian industry is in crisis or that Australians can’t make good films.

    By the way, Tomorrow, When the War Began writer/director Stuart Beattie got his break in the US as a scriptwriter way before he made Australian films.

  49. Just a short few q’s here. The ending showed the kids ‘posing’ as warriors ready, overlooking the harbour bay. I thought the epilogue was to begin.
    First reaction we had was , “HUH!?”…the end???? So my question is, will it be followed with a sequal or a tv series?

  50. the thing is, this movie is marketed at teens and young adults, who don’t care what the subtext is. who don’t pick at it saying that they shouldn’t have discussed this or that. my friends and I saw it and they all loved it, no one complained on it being ‘racist’ or ‘informative’.
    If an Asian country made a film where Australians invaded, I know a lot of people wouldn’t be offended. Who are we meant to make the invaders, aliens?

    It was certainly the best movie I have ever seen, and although it isn’t as good as the books, it sure is close to it.

  51. The thing is, I don’t care about people who don’t care about things like subtext. I’m not going to start changing the way I write about film to cater for people who don’t like to (or are unable to) think about cinema beyond basic value statements of whether it was good or not. Besides, it’s a pretty broad generalisation to say that teenagers and young adults aren’t interested in thinking a little bit deeper about the films they watch. I don’t believe that is true at all. You yourself claim not to care about subtext but then challenge my arguments about it – you clearly do care.

  52. Well said Thomas. I frequently do not share your views on movies, but always appreciate your clarity of stance. There really is no point in writing reviews merely consisting of superlatives or whinges (although sadly, numerous online movie reviews consist of little more than this and a plot precis – YAWN).

    I see nancy’s comment as naive. As you point out, she contradicts herself in challenging your reading of subtext. I am with you, also, in your assertion that ‘young people’ are not as a whole as superficial in their responses to movies (and popular culture generally, for that matter) as nancy declares.

    To be honest, I couldn’t assign any credibility to the comments of someone who appraises this movie as “the best I have ever seen”. You’re a kinder man than I…

  53. Interesting is the focus on the identifying the invaders as Asian as judging by their appearance alone. No one as yet tried to identify them in other ways. I watched the film several times (and read the books several times) stopping at particular parts when the enemy spoke. Because I can speak some and recognise several Asian languages, I was curious to hear what the depicted invaders sounded like. At one point in the film when the soldiers are searching for Ellie and her friends just before the lawnmower explosion incident I swear it sounds like the soldiers are speaking Mandarin, saying something the equivalent to, “See if you can find any others” (For people who can speak Mandarin listen out for the words ‘zhao’ (look/search) and qitaren’ (other people) at that point in the film. At another point in the film it sounds like the soldiers are speaking Korean. A coalition of China and close friend North Korea perhaps? I’m also glad I’m not the only one who thought that North Korea would make a socially acceptable enemy in a film. Depicting the Chinese as an enemy however is a bit more problematic; consider the negative reaction many Chinese had to the depiction of China as the invader in the Red Dawn remake (which hasn’t even hit screens yet, due to MGM’s financial woes). But I am yet to hear of any beef the Chinese could have with Tomorrow, When the War Began. I’d be curious to see what my Chinese friends think of it.

  54. I’m a Chinese who live in Shandong, China. And I want to say something about it. I have not read the whole book series. I’ve just watched the movie only. The language spoke by the soldiers sounds like our language, not very clearly though.
    I quite agree with what Wayne said. Maybe not that much serious but the movie is surely freshly weird to me. When the Red Dawn remake is on, we’re gonna invade the US! Aren’t these idea just too naive or…? I cannot imagine our country can do that. Oh, it occurs to me that my friend recently is playing a game in which North Korea invades America. In my opinion, unless they use nuclear weapon, North Korea is too weak to invade a common country. Don’t you think so? You guys just like create entertainment like these things, don’t you?
    By the way, the heroine of the film is very beautiful. I like her. The Asian male’s look sucks. They can found a better actor actually.

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