Tomorrow, When The War Began is based on a famous series of Australian books about naughty Asians invading Oz. But the timing of the movie's Stateside release obviously has more to do with Hunger Games fever — here's another film about a group of teenagers dealing with an apocalyptic, dystopian scenario, featuring a strong female lead who kicks loads of ass. (Even though this particular apocalypse is limited to Australia.)
Comparisons to Hunger Games do Tomorrow no favors — this is a flimsy adventure, full of one-dimensional characters and stilted dialogue. But if you're in the mood to open a six-pack of Tooheys New White Stag and watch a dumb movie tonight, you could do way worse.
Full disclosure: I haven't read the original novel by John Marsden, although there are a few incredibly cool moments in this movie which I'd bet anything are lifted directly from the book. As a movie, though, Tomorrow is mostly super middle-of-the-road stuff — it's the passion project of writer/director Stuart Beattie, who scripted G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra and the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. And honestly, this movie is exactly what you'd expect from the guy with those credentials. But it's still a lot of fun, and not nearly as jacked up as you'd expect from the premise.
In Tomorrow When the War Began, a group of teenagers (who are designed to represent as many teen archetypes as possible) decide to go for a weekend camping trip together, in a lovely but dangerous area of the Bush known as Hell. There's the smart girl, the girly girl, the sensitive Asian dude, the troublemaker, the surfer dude, the uptight Christian girl, and so on. They see a ton of mysterious planes going overhead — and when they go home, everything's deserted. They eventually realize Australia has been invaded by a coalition of unnamed Asian countries, and the town's residents have all been rounded up and put into a big enclosure. They hide from the invaders, while trying to decide whether, and how, they can fight back.
This is a classic "coming of age" premise, accompanied by weighty issues of violence and the morality of killing in self-defense. They go from a group of irresponsible teenagers to a hardened crew of resistance fighters in a long guerilla war against the Asian oppressors, over the course of one reasonably short movie. And the movie does delve a fair bit into the ways that war changes people, and the ethics of killing people to protect your homes and families. This stuff isn't just given lip service, but is explored in depth — I'm guessing, largely thanks to the source material.
The best part of the film is definitely the protagonist, Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey). She's a worthy competitor to Katniss — she starts out as just a plucky girl who pretty much organizes the trip. But soon enough, she's the first member of the group to kill any of the invaders, and she picks up a machine gun without a second thought. Later, she comes up with a completely demented idea to get past the invaders' patrols, by driving in a vehicle so massive, it doesn't matter if the invaders spot it. It's one big demolition derby, with Ellie driving like a maniac. Later, she actually becomes scarily intense, as she lays it out for the others: She's already taken human lives, and thus she's already made her choice. But it's not too late for the others to back out of becoming soldiers in this war.
If you're going to watch a mostly brain-dead teen action movie — which this definitely is — then it's not a bad idea to watch one with a tough female protagonist who pushes everybody else to fight.
And the absolute best scene in the movie revolves around Ellie, who finds one of her comrades has fallen asleep on watch. She goes absolutely postal on her lax team-mate, and to her credit Stasey brings the intensity to sell the scene, which could easily be just another one of the movie's many stilted moments.
So yeah... about those stilted moments. There are a few really noticeable moments of speechifying that would make George Lucas blush. I can't tell if these are lifted from the book, and they just work a lot better on the page — or if they're new to the movie. You'll know these moments when you see them, because the whole movie grinds to a halt, and the actors seem not to know what they're doing.
There are also some non-verbal moments of clunkiness, where the movie reaches for deep symbolism and falls way short — like, a character asks which country has invaded Australia, and someone else says, "What does it matter? What do flags mean anyway?" — and then we cut to a shot of the bedraggled Australian flag outside a building. Also, towards the end of the movie, when one character makes a major step towards being a responsible adult, you see her walk away from a playground swingset that's in the foreground, just in case you missed the symbolism.
Also, most of the characters are so one-dimensional, it kind of hurts after a while. It's probably to be expected from a movie with seven major characters, but they're perhaps a bit too archetypal after a while. They're not just cliches, they're tired cliches. Like, the ridiculously pretty blonde girl, who inexplicably believes she's an ugly duckling and has never dated anyone — she thinks guys aren't interested in her, but they're just afraid to approach her because she's so pretty. Etc. etc.
The only other really compelling character in the movie, besides Ellie, is her love interest, Lee. His family runs the Chinese restaurant in town, and they're apparently the only Asians in the entire town, until the invaders arrive. The movie bends over backwards to make Lee a paragon — the most level-headed, smart, resourceful character, other than Ellie herself — to counterbalance the weirdness of hordes of nearly-faceless Asian marauders. But Lee also gets some real complexity and a sense of interiority, like in the scene at left where he talks about how he felt seeing his family's restaurant destroyed.
This movie attempts to do a deft switch about half an hour in, jumping from a typical teenage road-trip movie to a gritty action-adventure — but actually, it keeps a lot of its "teenage road-trip movie" baggage throughout, especially in the mostly flimsy characters and romance arcs. It's like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Battle Pants.
As the title implies, this movie is set five minutes into the future. And there's an interesting tinge of dystopia to the portrayal of a world where the competition over scarce resources has escalated to the point where it's worth expending the effort to invade coastal Australia. (It's hinted, in various places, that the enemy's supply lines are stretched pretty thin, which seems likely.) So all in all, this is a pretty welcome addition to the canon of near-future dystopian adventures, even with all of its clunkiness.
It's nice to see a dystopian adventure that at least raises the question of whether it's okay to respond to violence with violence. And like I said, Ellie is a worthy companion to Katniss Everdeen in the ranks of tough survivors who do what's necessary with a minimum of whining. All in all, you could do a lot worse.
Tomorrow When the World Began opens today in select theaters, and VOD nationwide.