TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN (12A): On General Release Friday 8th April
Despite its inconsistencies, some atrocious dialogue and even more questionable acting, director Stuart Beattie has fashioned a hugely enjoyable, high octane action-drama out of Tomorrow: When The War Began, adapted from John Marsden’s highly successful book franchise. However, the film is richer than its surface appearance suggests, exploring ideas of the ‘other’, Australian colonisation, citizenship and a refreshingly positive representation of youth’s capacity for heroism.
When 17 year old Ellie (Caitlin Stasey) and seven friends are granted permission to trek to ‘Hell’ (actually resembling a lush and serene nature reserve), a fun weekend break soon fades into horror as they return to find their homes and families under attack from a foreign military force. With pets left to die and parents missing, it is up to Ellie and her ragtag gang to evade capture and somehow free their countrymen.
Initially, it stretches credulity that Ellie’s friends would agree to go on a holiday together in the first place (would Greek rebel and serial lawbreaker Homer (Deniz Akdeniz) risk losing face by being seen to associate with devout Christian Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings) or good-y-two-shoes-cum-love interest Fi (Phoebe Tonkin)?), each character too concretely defined by a singular trait (Ellie is a farmer, Fi a spoilt city girl, Lee a mere cog in his parents Chinese restaurant, Kevin a cowardly jock etc) but, once the revelation of the invasion takes place, the ensuing explosions and pervading sense of imminent threat are sufficiently gripping to mask over any character deficiencies. The weakest link is arguably Lee (Chris Pang), a rather wet individual prone to cringing philosophical insights and amateurishly delivered speeches. Similarly forgettable is Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood), a rather arbitrary figure in the grand scheme of things whose presence is woefully perfunctory.
Tonally, it borrows the Famous Five’s spirit for adventure (“It’s an awesome feeling when you’re going to change someone’s life forever” declares an excited Homer), bringing it up to date with a contemporary cast and a modern setting; Enid Blyton’s creations certainly never helmed a gigantic garbage truck in a high speed duel or engaged in a running semi-automatic gun battle. It is a nice touch that, even though romances inevitably bloom, female characters are by and large fairly strong and independent, Fi initially the sole exception. Caitlin Stasey is particularly impressive as Ellie, a natural leader who is not immune from succumbing to pressure, readily willing to enforce capital punishment after a comrade falls asleep at his post risking all of their lives. Like all good children’s stories, there is an absence of authority figures, forcing Ellie and her friends to assume responsibility and discover who they really are, often pleasantly surprised by their own bravery.
It is an intriguing premise to have White English speaking people be occupied by a ‘foreign’ force (seemingly Chinese of origin), thus positioning Whites as the ‘other’. Seen in this light, it is an interesting commentary on media depictions of occupied lands with echoes of the Vietnam War, three of cinema’s most widely covered conflict-zones. In addition to this reversal, there is a curious shot of a poster depicting a colonialist in military garb, with his gun raised, approaching a tribe of crudely drawn Aborigines. An obvious mirroring of Ellie and her friends’ situation, it creates a powerful parallel between their ongoing predicament and that of the scandalous experiences of Australia’s native population some two centuries ago, still a contentious topic Down Under. As the group become increasingly defiant and gung-ho (Robyn’s initial reluctance, on ethical grounds, to kill anyone soon dissipates in a hail of bullets), the closer their determination to repel the opposition army begins to resemble that of a freedom fighter, a strength of fighting spirit normally reserved for the noble infantryman though another reading could equally suggest a more sinister proposition: that of the superior White soldier.
“We’ll keep fighting until this war is finally won” says Ellie, in a dramatic sweeping crane shot intended to set-up the second instalment. Based on the merits of the first, it will be a challenge to follow it up but they’ve certainly secured an audience for it.