Tomorrow, When the War Began follows the journey of eight high school
friends in a remote country town whose lives are suddenly and violently
upended by a war that no-one saw coming. Cut off from their families and
their friends, these eight extraordinary teenagers must somehow learn
to escape, survive and fight back.

Based on John Marsden’s popular and critically-acclaimed novel.

A derivative kids' own adventure.

A reputed $20 million investment should be enough to kick-start an action film franchise, but Stuart Beattie’s awkwardly-titled Tomorrow When The War Began works best in its quieter character-driven moments, most of which occur in the film’s first hour. This commitment to the honest portrayal of teenage complexities is the greatest asset held over from the source material – author John Marsden’s award-winning 1993 novel, which captured perfectly, the personalities and frustrations of life as a teenager (in this case, those caught in a rural warzone).

But if this expansive adaptation of the first of his seven 'Tomorrow...’ books is any indication, Marsden is far more comfortable talking the talk. As the 'war movie’ elements of his plot unfolds, the tension and believability drain away.

Debutant director Beattie was no doubt brought on board to ensure this didn’t happen, having proven his chops with his scripts for Gore Verbinski’s first Pirates of the Caribbean film (2003), Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004) and Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008). As becomes evident, Tomorrow When The War Began didn’t need another writer calling the shots, but a director with the skill to milk the maximum excitement from minimal elements (as producer Andrew Mason points out in the press notes, 'The budget of the film may seem large in Australian terms, but it’s a very small amount of money in international terms.")

Beattie sets up the seven key teenage characters with a dexterity and confidence that, frankly, make the film’s first half hour the best 30 minutes of the movie. The lovely Ellie (Caitlin Stasey, charismatic and believable) is the fun, maturing personality that binds together her group of same-age friends and neighbours – BFF Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and her love Kevin (Lincoln Lewis); posh, ditzy blonde Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin); rebel hothead Homer (Deniz Akdeniz); moral compass Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings); and strong silent type Lee (Chris Pang).

A weeklong camping trip deep into the Aussie wilderness (the film was shot in The Blue Mountains of NSW; the Hunter Valley township of Dungog doubled as the book’s setting, Wirrawee) not only ensures strong bonds are formed and sexual tensions established, but also that the group are out of harm’s way when the war begins. Upon returning to their deserted homes, they find animals slain and communication cut. That international tensions may have been on the boil is suggested by the character’s reactions – Homer and Lee, in particular, switch into commando-mode immediately. It is one of the first signs that the age-appropriate characterisations that have been so well established to this point will soon devolve into gun-toting caricatures.

For the over-35s, it will all seem a little too reminiscent of John Milius’ Red Dawn (1984), a film about a rebel unit of mountain-dwelling teenage soldiers called The Wolverines (featuring the dreamy mid-80s cast of Charlie Sheen, Patrick Swayze, Lea Thompson and C. Thomas Howell). That film had the guts to name its aggressor (that decade’s preferred movie villain, Russia) whereas Beattie skirts around the identities of the attacking force. He frames occasional glimpses of Asian features on the helmeted soldiers but never once outwardly declares which regional neighbour would mount an attack on Australia. Further muddying their identification (and, by association, the perceived level of threat), he also never enters into any sort of 'Why?" discussion – what is the political climate that would lead to a traditional land assault? Why are the invading forces securing one lane bridges in rural Australia? How did the attacking armies construct prison-camps in only a few days? Why has there been no counter-strike from Australian forces? There are some bewildering plot contrivances in a film that favours visual dexterity over storytelling logic. For the targeted teenage demographic who don’t care about such complexities, it will be the earnest dialogue and genre heroics that may prove giggle-worthy.

That said, there is much to praise in Robert Webb’s production design, Marcus D’arcy’s editing and Ben Nott’s cinematography. Norman Parkhill’s music and the associated visuals cues are right on the money in the film’s opening scenes and all elements come together convincingly in the most exciting action sequence – the discovery of the group in an abandoned homestead by an enemy helicopter. The scene happens early in the film (and comprises a large part of the film’s trailer) and creates the hope that if the film gets bigger, it will definitely get better.

Sadly, the opposite is true; a middling mid-section, a frantic cameo by Colin Friels and the introduction of the stoner character Chris (a hammy Andrew Ryan) dilutes the dynamic of the group and dissipates tension. The finale is a dark, low-wattage action set piece; the closing scenes remind the audience that this is an ongoing story, the open-endedness of the characters' plight a significant letdown.

Mason’s words about the limitations of the film’s budget prove prescient. The film feels like it wants to play on the world stage, to mess it up with the big boys of the action genre. But Tomorrow When The War Began jettisons its greatest asset – John Marsden’s insight into teenage insecurities and idealistic vision – in the name of stock heroics and sellable stunt work. The producers should have been careful what they wished for - Tomorrow When The War Began is every bit as generic and disposable as similarly-budgeted efforts from anywhere else in the world.