Tomorrow When the War Began Review
Australia, the present day. Ellie (Caitlin Stasey) and her best friend Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood) organise a camping holiday in the woods near their home. With them are Kevin (Lincoln Lewis), to whom Ellie has just lost her virginity, religious Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings), who is only allowed to go when she persuades her parents that her virginity will not go the same way as Ellie's, posh girl Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin), Lee (Chris Pang) whose parents run the local Thai restaurant, and bad boy Homer (Deniz Akdeniz). However, while they are away, Australia is invaded...
Tomorrow When the War Began, written and directed by Australian Stuart Beattie (making his debut in the latter capacity), is based on a young-adult novel by John Marsden. The book, originally published in 1993, is the first of a series of seven: I don't know if this film – the most expensive Australian film yet made - will spawn six sequels, but it certainly has the feel of setting up a premise in preparation for a follow-up. Hence the rather open ending, with two characters' fates left undisclosed.
The film begins slowly, with the first twenty minutes or so devoted to the camping holiday, with episodes such as an encounter with a dangerous snake to keep the interest. You'd hope that this opening would pay off in greater character involvement but unfortunately it doesn't do that well enough. Of the seven principals – later joined by Chris (Andy Ryan) – only one or two, Ellie especially, are given much chance to develop, and the others remain two-dimensional. Maybe they get their chance in the sequels. (I haven't read any of the novels.)
Then they see planes flying overhead. Returning home, they find houses deserted and communications down, with their friends and neighbours rounded up in compounds by the invaders. From that point, Tomorrow... turns into an action movie, with the teenagers trying to survive and learning to be guerilla fighters. Beattie stages the setpieces ably enough, and although the content is toned down to teen-friendly levels (the Australian M rating translates to a probable PG-13 in the States and I'd say the film is on the 12/15 borderline by UK standards) some of the characters' choices are a little tougher than you might find in a Hollywood movie, even if the premise inevitably recalls 1984's Red Dawn. The identity of the invaders is kept deliberately unspecific, so that there's none of the gratuitous Commie-bashing of the earlier film. The invading soldiers, from what we see of them, are often as young as our heroes and heroines. On the way, there are some nice touches, such as a brief self-reflexive scene where Ellie and Corrie talk about how books are often better than films, as the latter reads My Brilliant Career. Incidentally, this seene means that the film passes the Bechdel test, something less often achieved than you might think, and another point in its favour.
Apart from Rachel Hurd-Wood (who has grown up somewhat since she played Wendy in the 2003 version of Peter Pan), I wasn't familiar with most of the young cast, many of whom are graduates from television, and they're all a bit too good-looking to quite ring true. Given the meatiest role, Neighbours alumna Caitlin Stasey (who narrates much of the film as a flashback) produces the most impressive performance. Colin Friels turns up in a one-scene role as a doctor.
The film ends with a short-term conclusion but only one segment of a larger arc fulfilled. In the wake of the success of the Harry Potter and Twilight films, clearly it's not just Hollywood who are raiding young-adult fiction for franchise possibilities. As I write this, Tomorrow... has just opened in Australia and New Zealand, and how far it will play overseas remains to be seen. But you are left wanting more, and I would certainly be happy to see more.