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Tomorrow, When the War Began movie review: on track to become an Aussie classic

tomorrowwarbeganGreen lightAuthor John Marsden’s Australian invasion novel Tomorrow, When the War Began has been gobbled up like corn chips and adored by teens and young adults since it hit the shelves in the early 90’s.

The book generated record sales, six sequels, endless speculation about the nationality of the invaders (Marsden never named names) and now a slick big screen adaptation from Aussie writer/director Stuart Beattie, who has big budget bona fides as the writer of Michael Mann’s terrific one-night-from-hell LA thriller Collateral and a contributing scribe to Hollywood franchises such as the Pirates of the Caribbean series.

This marks Beattie’s first film as a director. There’s no doubt watching how his words have been shaped into showy multiplex movie’s has taught him some tricks of the trade over the years – particularly how to employ polished cinematography and maintain a cracking pace.

The story tracks a group of high school students from the small town of Wirrawee who go on a week-long camping trip to “Hell” – not the place with flames, pitchforks and Stan Zemanek but a beautiful remote location that looks like something straight out of a shampoo commercial.

Dozens of military planes fly over one night and when the young’uns return to town things have sure taken a turn for the worse: the dogs are dead, mum and dad are nowhere to be seen and the town is eerily silent. It’s been invaded by a foreign power, residents herded into a makeshift concentration camp. A couple of impromptu meeting later these (pimple free) pubescent peeps decide – natch – to grab some munitions and ta-ta take the power back.

For the record: yes, we see the invaders, and they’re obviously Asian. But the question of the invading country is skirted in the film, as it was in the book. When the characters discuss flags and nationalities, one chimes in with “what difference does a flag make?” which is nice way of avoiding the ethnicity elephant in the room.

There was never any mystery as to why the books were so successful. The story was written with Marsden’s unprepossessing style and mingled with elements akin to a high school student’s wet dream – the action-spangled p(l)ot of gold at the end of the elusive “learning can be fun” rainbow. Beattie knew there was never an excuse to make a boring movie.

He also would have known that a key challenge was to get the balance right between story and action, and that involves juggling the inevitable slabs of character exposition without prompting the audience to wriggle in their seats and cry out the cinematic equivalent of “are we there yet?”

Beattie does a sterling job maintaining an upbeat rhythm without dumbing the material down into slabs of inconsequential action. There are countless pace pick me ups: gun fights, explosions, background flashes of wartime activity and encounters with strangers, including a cameo from Colin Friels as a frazzled dentist (“you picked a helluva weekend to go camping!”) and some comedic relief from the town stoner (“either I’ve been smoking some really weird shit or it’s not your typical day in Wirrawee”).

The film looks great and the slick cinematography by Ben Nott (who also shot Daybreakers) is unexpectedly stylistic. For the soundtrack Beattie opts for a top 20 pastiche approach over a strong atmospheric score, using a smattering of popular Aussie songs largely as tools for scene transitions rather than audio nuance, which will irritate some viewers.

There was a clean-cut feel to Marsden’s writing, an uncluttered middle of the road style that feeds into the film – particularly in the dialogue – and probably always had to. However, Beattie’s handling is sassier and edgier than readers of the book will probably expect and he brings more than a hint of the risqué: a snippet of unexpected violence to illustrate in no uncertain terms that war is the stuff of nasty pasties; some spliff tokes from the stoner; a healthy amount of cleavage from the two pretty young female leads, etcetera. Just enough to make young viewers feel as if they’ve seem something slightly irreverent when in fact Tomorrow, When the War Began is ultimately inoffensive entertainment, just like the books.

Beattie nails the tone of the source material, even improves on it, notwithstanding moments when the movie spills into the kind of borderline cheesy hands-on-hips-staring–out-yonder-from-a-cliff-face moments that he spends much of the movie dodging, or attempting to. But Tomorrow, When the War Began will work with its target demographic and then some, and it’s set to join the book as a classic of Australian fiction.

There is one sly touch in which the characters beat the audience to the inevitable comparison between page and screen. The exchange takes place between two girls, one of whom is reading My Brilliant Career. What a horrible indictment on contemporary popular culture that such a literary choice almost breaks realism, but presumably Beattie cared too much about his characters to let them consume Twilight.

“Good book?”
“Better than the movie.”
“Books usually are.”

That’s the sort of self-reflexive wink wink touch that comes from a writer, not a director. It serves as a subtle reminder that Stuart Beattie is now qualified as both.

Tomorrow, When the War Began’s Australian theatrical release date: September 2, 2010

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  • 1
    Peter Phelps
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    ‘Skippy’ meets “Red Dawn’, led by ‘GI Jane’. Hmm.

    Still, they are all armed.

    And that makes a nice change from the ‘all war is wrong’ bullshit that makes up so much of contemporary youth discourse on military conflict, especially amongst young females.

  • 2
    Shakira Hussein
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Hated the books (given that I look like an “invader”) and have hated every word that John Marsden has ever said about the books. Ok they follow the classic children/teenagers formula – adults taken out of the picture at the outset, young people fall back on own resources – but the “ethnicity elephant in the room” just can’t be avoided. Gee – we’re not being invaded by ONE Asian county – it’s ALL of them.
    My personal teenage invasion fantasy stories always involved having to flee into the bush to hide from white supremacists…some of whom would no doubt have been sleeping with copies of Marsden’s book under their pillow.

  • 3
    W H Chong
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Mr B, You’ve made it sound good! The trailer looks like sleek, slick, perfect middle-of-the-freeway entertainment. Precisely targeted teen trash — mmm, precisely horrible. It should make trainloads, no?

  • 4
    Sancho
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    The story was written with Marsden’s unprepossessing style and mingled with elements akin to a high school student’s wet dream – the action-spangled p(l)ot of gold at the end of the elusive “learning can be fun” rainbow. Beattie knew there was never an excuse to make a boring movie.

    Seriously? It’s a parochial copy of Red Dawn with the Wolverines replaced by an unbelievable band of thinly-drawn Australian kids.

  • 5
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Grew up on these and I’m glad to hear the positive reviews coming through. Was scared. She doesn’t look like Ellie in my mind ;)

  • 6
    Johnfromplanetearth
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Might become a reality if the Greens get their way and we don’t export coal to China, maybe they will just come and take it!

  • 7
    Bogdanovist
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    @Shakira While it is hard for me to judge (since I don’t look ‘like an invader’ as you put it) but I got very different impression from those books when I read them many moons ago. The story had zero overtones of Nationalism or any bearing about lessons to be learned in real world politics. It was simple a ‘what if?’ story centered on a group trying to survive. The absence of ethnicity of the Invaders I thought was very well handled and rather than being an ‘elephant in the room’ was simply a neccessity to contrive the situation. The multi-ethnic makeup of the teenage band also didn’t seem like tokenism to me, and was treated simply as the way things are in Oz, rather than makinf any great play of it. At no stage was there any message, implied or otherwise, that this was a real threat in the Real World that we should guard against in some way lest the story become reality.

    That you got a different impression I think says more about Australian culture more broadly than these books. That is a seperate issue, though clearly a significant one.

  • 8
    Sancho
    Posted August 27, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Yes, John, the apocalypse is just around the corner. And it’s not America’s religious wars in the middle east that will start it, nor resurgent white supremacism in the west, nor our complete disregard for finite resources and the rapidly degrading environment. No, it’s Greens’ policies that exist nowhere but in your head that will bring the yellow hordes down upon our fine nation.

    Hey, did you know vaccines cause autism, too? Of course you did.

  • 9
    c_s
    Posted August 27, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Dear god, looks great, but I hope it doesn’t ruin such a fantastic Australian classic!

  • 10
    Johnfromplanetearth
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Sancho: What Greens Policies? If they have any rational policies in the foreseeable future i’ll let you know. America’s religious wars? I think you might find that it’s all of us who are considered the infidels and you know what happens to infidels in the koran now don’t you? This movie a stinker! The only vaccine you need to take is one to stop the spread of stupidity regarding anything Green!

  • 11
    moonkid
    Posted September 3, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Saw this last night. I loved the books as a teenager, and I wasn’t expecting the movie to live up to them, but went to the cinema hopeful after reading some positive reviews.

    It was slickly put together, but that seemed to be at the expense of developing the intense mood of the novels. Most of the action sequences felt overly staged, the enemy soldiers lacking the sheer menace they had in the books. The transition of the teenagers from ordinary kids to soldiers felt rushed and inauthentic. They got away with too much, too easily, too soon.

    Most of the performances were strong, but there was at least one clunker. There were some moments of genuine (intended) comedy, but when you’re getting big laughs on Ellie’s “confused kiss” scene, you’re missing the mark. By the time the pre-credits, Lord of the Rings-style “we are soldiers” bit came up, I was cringing more than clapping.

    Two and a half stars.

  • 12
    moonkid
    Posted September 3, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and @Johnfromplanetearth: Because the major parties have such a great bundle to offer of ideas to offer us? I’d take Bob over Tony or Julia any day.

  • 13
    MaDups
    Posted September 17, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Taking my 16-year old ganddaughter this weekend to see this movie.
    Very curious to see how we both react to it.
    Should make for interesting discussion afterwards.
    And btw Moonkid, I SO agree with you – give me Bob any day before Julia or Tony.

  • 14
    Bronnie
    Posted January 10, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Gee is John Marsden paying royalties to the screenwriter of Red Dawn (1984) for this book? The plotline seems very very similar.

6 Trackbacks

  1. By So many books, so little time « pages et cetera on August 25, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    ...] Read a review of the film. [...

  2. By Today’s the day | CMIS Evaluation Fiction Focus on September 3, 2010 at 11:46 am

    ...] Crikey [...

  3. ...] tickled pink by Beattie’s adaptation, and he wasn’t the only one to give it a thumbs up. I found the film fast paced, engaging and – perhaps most pertinently, given this was my primary concern [...

  4. ...] Oscar-nominated Bright Star, a sumptuously shot biopic of John Keats. The commercially triumphant Tomorrow When the War Began, from writer-cum-director Stuart Beattie, chalked up eight. The indigenous musical Bran Nue [...

  5. ...] winners include writer/director Stuart Beattie (Adapted Screenplay for Tomorrow, When the War Began), Deborah Mailman (Best Supporting Actress, Bran Nue Dae) and Sam Worthington (International Award [...

  6. ...] Tomorrow, When the War Began – $13.5 million 2. Bran Nue Dae – $ 7.7 million 3. Animal Kingdom – $4.9 million [...

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