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.
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.