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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