Directed by: Stuart Beattie
Cast: Caitlin Stasey, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Lincoln Lewis
Duration: 120 mins
Based on the best-selling Australian novel of the same name, Tomorrow When The War Began is the first in a series of seven books by top author of young adult fiction, John Marsden. The series were phenomenally popular in Australia, selling more than 2.5 million copies and becoming a national treasure in the process, earning a place on the Australian School English Curriculum.
This best-loved teen novel was always going to be a high budget and big film release in Australia, with every Home and Away and Neighbours actor hungry for a role. A few of them made it through and the film opened in Australia in August 2010 becoming the highest grossing movie of the year.
Based in the fictional town of Wirrawee, in rural Australia, the story begins with Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey – Neighbours) planning a camping trip with her best friend Corrie Mackenzie (Rachel Hurd-Wood – Dorian Gray, An American Haunting). They recruit a mix of friends to join them and the seven of them head out in Ellie’s dad Land Rover into the bush and down into a secluded canyon called Hell.
While sleeping there they awake to the sounds of numerous fighter jets overhead and upon arriving back to Ellie’s home they discover the farm empty, parents gone, electricity cut and worst of all, Ellie’s dog is dead, chained to his post. One by one they discover the same thing until they realise the awful truth, Australia has been invaded. The invaders, while never specified in the book, are shown to be Asian. Sneaking into the town they witness a violent scene at the show ground where the town’s population are held captive. Now forced to hide out and fending for themselves the teenagers soon realise that it’s time to fight back, guerrilla style.
Seven teens attempting to fight an enemy army capable of taking Australia overnight may seem far-fetched but don’t forget these are stubborn, hands-on farm kids. Tomboy Ellie tackles fast-paced car chases in a sort of dumpster/excavator while a friend lies injured in the front bucket. She also steals a massive oil tanker, parks it under a bridge teeming with soldiers before blowing it up. No problem, just like driving a tractor isn’t it? In its attempt to stay true to the plot developments, time restraints no doubt got in the way and the compromise seems to be the vital character layers that were cleverly revealed in the books. As a result, scenes like the aforementioned, while perfectly exciting, are just not believable. In fact they are downright ridiculous.
This would be fine if the film was aiming to be a fun action teen flick but it takes itself a little too seriously to be just that. These teens have blood on their hands and the script meanders from over simplified dialogue to long monologues on the ethical implications of murder and with most characters appearing one-dimensional, with exception of Ellie and Corrie who are both quite good, it all seems totally contrived.
To its credit, the film is well shot and visually beautiful. Marsden is patriotic to his roots of rural Australia, a landscape of vast dusty roads, endless hills of dry grass, burnt red earth, farms, rivers, wombats, snakes and eucalyptus trees. ‘The Bush’ has a strong presence in the film, it’s their refuge, saviour and the only place to be themselves.
Australia has produced some great and unique cinema and it’s just a shame as this film could have been so much better. It could have drawn on the tense and chilling atmosphere of films with a similar premise of small groups of survivors fighting back like 24 Days Later or even given a nod to feral-ness of the dystopian Mad Max series. Instead it has more in common with shallow Hollywood films, betraying the realism and gritty coming of age themes portrayed in the book and making it all a little bit cringe-y.
They have of course already anticipated this reaction though. In a conversation between Ellie and Corrie, while having some down time in Hell, Ellie asks Corrie if the book she is reading is any good. ‘Better than the film’ she replies, to which Ellie agrees, ‘Yeah, they usually are’.
One film down. Six more chances to make a better one.