In case you hadn’t gathered from reading my earlier book review of Tomorrow, When The War Began, I think it should be (if it’s not already) regarded as one of the great Australian novels of our time. I don’t think the same will be said of this film, which is not to say, however, that it’s not without its own pleasures. There is a scene (not in the book) where one character is reading Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (itself regarded as one of the great Australian novels of all time) and another character says, “How’s the book?” “It’s better than the movie,” is the reply. “They always are.” This exchange of dialogue fairly nicely sums up the film experience of Tomorrow.

Right from the time I first heard about this film, I knew that the biggest hurdle it would have to leap is the Boys’ Own Trap. The book is nicely plotted with plenty of relentless action sequences, chases and peril – so quite rightly it would make a good film. In fact, why it’s taken 15 years is absolutely beyond me. The problem is, how do you stop such a story becoming just an action movie?

What made Tomorrow When The War Began rise above the ranks of ordinary teenage action literature was author John Marsden’s careful ear for realistic dialogue, and the beautifully drawn characterisation of the story’s narrator, Ellie. Within two pages of the novel, he established a use of language that is immediately understandable by teenager. Ellie’s storytelling is both simple enough to seem realistic (no highbrow arthouse dialogue here) and yet profound and serious enough to carry great weight. It’s a masterpiece of character writing.

It is through Ellie’s eyes that the invasion of her hometown, Wirrawee, is seen. So when there is action, Ellie always describes this with the terror, anguish and tough decisions that such a thing would carry. And for me, the beauty of the first book was the setup. As the teenagers plan their camping holiday, there’s a sense of fun and enthusiasm that is conveyed. Things are still innocent, and it takes the reader back to that sense of freedom that you used to have hanging around with your mates. By setting this up as something we can all relate to, when the war part starts (which is something most of us can’t relate to), we are drawn in and can imagine it.

Well, I hate to say it – but that all went out the window. Director Stuart Beattie is responsible for the script and – especially for the first 10 minutes – it’s a clunker. To make it worse, the cast are, on the whole, fairly mediocre. (They remind me a bit of the Australian equivalent of the Harry Potter cast – though those guys are getting pretty good at their game now.) Also, the story has been updated from the early 90s to the present day. This is not as bad as you might think, but the first image is Ellie (Caitlin Stasey) talking to a video camera screen, and then a bit later, she’s pulling a mobile phone out of her pocket and looking at an SMS from her friend Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood).

I could cope with this, but as soon as Ellie and Corrie get together, it’s to talk about Corrie having sex with her boyfriend the night before. Never mind that Marsden takes sex much more seriously than that – it’s just a trashy introduction to the characters. Come on, Stuart – this is how Americans introduce characters! And it gets worse from there on. Fi, the prim and proper one, is a vacuous blonde (I feel a bit sorry for actress Phoebe Tonkin).

The one that most incensed me was the character of Robyn. Actress Ashleigh Cummings is probably the most convincing of the girls, but her character’s religious beliefs are treated as a total joke in her introductory scene, a lame exchange with her over-the-top puritanical father. While John Marsden would hardly be considered a friend of Christians, at least in the book, Robyn’s faith was always portrayed seriously, not through some post-modern “let’s have a joke” lens.

So I was rather glad when all of this ended, and the proper storyline began. The kids go camping, and while they’re away, a foreign country invades. Once our heroes arrive back in Wirrawee, things really start to heat up, and this is where Beattie’s direction really comes into play. He’s clearly comfortable directing an action sequence and it shows. From this point on, the film is relentlessly suspenseful with very little let-up. Combine that with Event Cinemas in George Street, who like to turn their subwoofers up to 11, and there was no falling asleep in this one.

Once I’d accepted that the story wasn’t going to live up to Marsden’s novel (and some people may not be able to), I quite enjoyed this film. I’ve always complained to anyone who would listen that it annoys me that we don’t make big dumb crowd-pleasing action films in Australia. Why is it that Americans get to enjoy seeing their capital cities blown up and shot apart, with simple good guy/bad guy stories? For a long while, Australia has seemed only capable of making serious arthouse drama on a small scale or ocker comedies.

But Tomorrow puts paid to all that. The setting is distinctly Australian (gorgeous Blue Mountans photography and I’m not sure what they used for the fictional small town of Wirrawee) but the action is all the Hollywood stuff we love. Car chases, shoot outs, churning ostinato soundtrack and more explosions than I’ve seen in a long, long while. It was AWESOME to behold. And, oddly enough, as the movie went on, even the character interactions became a bit less wooden. Or maybe I was just glad of a break between subwoofer bursts. I’m not sure.

Look, this is probably going to get snubbed at the AFI awards, but this is a true crowd-pleasing Aussie film. With better scripting and casting (and the sucky thing is we’re probably stuck with this cast for all the sequels – but hey, I’m an optimist – they might improve), it could have been something better. But I’ll stop the whingeing. This is the big Australian action film I’ve been waiting on for a long while, and if you’re a fan of big action films, you’ll have fun with it. Or if you’re a 16-year-old boy, this movie was written with you in mind.

4 out of 5.

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3 thoughts on “Film Review: Tomorrow, When The War Began

  1. Hey Matt,

    Do you want to expand on your comment about this being Red Dawn done by Aussies? When I saw Red Dawn for the first time earlier this year I was a bit surprised at how dark the movie turned – much darker than the Boys Own Adventure that I’d been expecting (especially after the extremely cheesy intro – what soviet general in his right mind chooses to start WW3 by pacifying a school in the rural midwest?!). Is Tomorrow, or the series, going to be that dark?

    P’s got the books at home, maybe I should sit down and read them first.

    1. Hi Dave,

      I must confess, now that I’m put on the spot – that I don’t think I’ve watched Red Dawn right through from beginning to end. I’ve seen the opening invasion when I was a kid – and then I saw the end of it in America some time later. But I do know what you’re talking about. In fact, oddly enough, I was watching an episode of Scrubs recently where Elliott and Turk are watching Red Dawn on video and he’s saying, “This could totally happen you know.” And Elliott replies, “What? That Communists would invade Michigan or that C Thomas Howell being a tough guy?” Turk says: “Both.”

      But I digress.

      I’ve only read the first two Tomorrow books, but the first one is intense, but not anything outside of the realm of good solid action fare. (It’s more disturbing philosophically than it is from the point of any graphic content.) However, the second book (I think it’s called The Dead of Night), ups the stakes considerably. So if they continue to make them as faithfully (at least plotwise) as they did this one, then they will get more extreme.

      Still, I still think it’s one of those novels everyone should get a chance to interact with, so if the books are lying around, have a read of them. They’re a pretty quick read.

  2. Dark I think is a very overused term. If a character does something slightly morally ambiguous, that’s dark. If a primary character is killed, that’s dark too. If the work has a serious tone, it is considered dark. If a work is sad, dark. Dark colours are used, dark. I’m not sure what dark really means, but I don’t think it means any of the above.

    I didn’t think Red Dawn was a dark film. Certainly most of the main characters died (one of my biggest criticisms about that film was how tacked on a lot of the deaths felt and how the film makers never really developed the characters enough so I cared, I digress) but the implication was that they died for something greater than themselves, freedom, democracy and mom’s homemade apple pie. Their sacrifices give other people the courage to fight on and eventually defeat the dastardly communists. If they had died for nothing then that would have been dark (actually I suppose the execution scene that comes out of nowhere is a bit dark, but that’s only one scene out of a two hour movie).

    The Tomorrow Series isn’t that dark either. Bad things happen in it and Marsden doesn’t hold back in his portrayal of what might be considered some quite adult issues but take home messages throughout the series are positive and inspiring; believe in yourself, believe in things beyond yourself, don’t judge others by their appearances, courage in the face of adversity, life is still worth living even when the chips are down ect. Anyway, read the books they’re fantastic.

    The film was a disappointment. It was less grounded than I wanted it to be; more the Hollywood action film than less the coming of age story which I loved from the books.

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