Written and Directed by: Stuart Beattie
Starring: Caitlin Stasey, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Lincoln Lewis, Phoebe Tonkin and Deniz Akdeniz
Based on the first of a series of young adult novels by John Marsden, Tomorrow When the War Began is a character-driven survival drama similar in premise to the ’84 film Red Dawn. While comparisons to that teen hit are inevitable, the two narratives are ultimately very different, both tonally and thematically. Tomorrow emphasizes character and group dynamics while relegating the military threat (the Soviet Union in Red Dawn) to an ambiguous Asian collective left mostly unseen. If Red Dawn wanted to be a crowd-pleasing comic book action film, Tomorrow When the War Began certainly has a different set of priorities.
In the small Australian port town of Wirrawee, seven teenagers decide to go camping for the weekend. Ellie (a captivating Caitlin Stasey), her best friend Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and Corrie’s boyfriend Kevin (Lincoln Lewis), along with a disparate group of their peers, travel to a remote area of bush dubbed “Hell.” Upon their first night at camp, several fighter planes can be seen overhead, but the incident is quickly dismissed in lieu of more important pursuits. Society girl Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin) finds herself attracted to bad boy Homer (Deniz Akdeniz), while Lee (Chris Pang) and the independent Ellie exchange longing glances.
The shy, religious Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings) finds herself the odd one out, but seems content to enjoy the commune with nature sans hormonal drama. When the teens head back into the rural community, they discover dead pets, no power and missing parents. Under the cover of night, the group heads into town where they separate into groups to investigate. Much to their disbelief, the teens discover that most of the population has been taken hostage by an unknown military presence. While Ellie, Corrie and Kevin watch from a distance, they witness a soldier shooting and killing one of the captives.
After barely escaping the military forces through a harrowing chase sequence, the friends eventually regroup. They soon find shelter at the home of another school friend, stoner Chris (Andrew Ryan), who also managed to remain unseen during the initial raid. With a military presence everywhere, it becomes obvious that the only safe place to hide is the remote bush area of Hell. Exhausted and tired of hiding, the friends decide that the only way to deal with the hostile takeover is to fight back. They come up with an elaborate, yet highly risky plan to destroy the main bridge into town. If successful, it will impede the progress of more military entering the area and also demonstrate a very powerful threat. Since this is based on the first of a series of novels, be prepared for a very open ended climax and several loose plot threads.
Though it never received a proper U.S. release, Tomorrow When the War Began was a big hit in Australia two years ago. Compared to other recent films based on popular YA novels, it’s far more intimate and leisurely paced. The budget also appears to be much lower than such overly hyped productions as The Hunger Games and Twilight. But what director Stuart Beattie is able to accomplish on what appears to be a very modest budget is truly impressive.
The cinematography by Ben Nott (Daybreakers) vibrantly captures the breathtaking beauty of the Blue Mountains and wooded valleys of New South Wales, Australia. His fluid camera also makes the most of the few, yet memorable action set pieces. A suspenseful chase in a dump truck and a well-choreographed explosion and the ensuing damage it causes are as exciting as anything seen in The Hunger Games.
The young Aussie cast is exceptional, including Stasey as the charismatic, determined lead. She has genuine chemistry with her co-stars, especially Hurd-Wood and Pang (her best friend and potential love interest, respectively). Also of note are the matinee idol-handsome Akdeniz, who adds some depth to his clichéd “bad boy,” and Tonkin, who excels at her beautiful-yet-insecure character.
The screenplay, also written by Beattie, keeps the human emotion front and center. This is probably one of the reasons the film never found a U.S. distributor. An American version of Tomorrow would have, no doubt, been much bigger in scope and smaller in character development. While I’ve never read the source material, a cheeky dialogue exchange between Ellie and Corrie makes light of the fact that books are usually better than their subsequent screen versions. Without the benefit (or baggage) of having read the book, I can say that Beattie’s film is an engrossing ride and well worth seeking out.
This Freestyle DVD release features a beautiful widescreen version of the film with a smattering of the usual “special features.” Included is the rote The Making of the Movie, a behind-the-scenes looks at one of the big action set pieces, an alternate ending and the trailer.