One of Australia's highest grossing home-made films (in terms of domestic box office), Tomorrow When the War Began exploits a popular and much-loved teen novel to create the kind of 'big' action storytelling that can compete with American product. Notable as the first conscious attempt at an Australian-made film franchise, Tomorrow When the War Began walks a tightrope in realising the novel's aims whilst appealing to the widest possible demographic. So with this in mind, it looks a bit like hi-definition Home and Away (for any American readers out there, this is an Australian TV soap) but it's also a straight-shooting adaptation of the novel - uncomplicated, easy to follow, and successful at capturing all the big moments.
Ellie (Caitlin Staisey) and her friends are 17 year old country kids who decide to go camping one weekend. They find a remote and idyllic spot nicknamed 'Hell' by the locals, and spend a fun few days there. Whilst sleeping under the stars, Ellie notices a lot of aircraft flying overhead. Upon returning to the town of Werriwee they find all their homes abandoned, and a stealth mission into the town's fairground reveals that Australia has been invaded by Asian soldiers. After narrowly escaping with their lives they come to the realisation that they only have three options - hide in the bush and wait for the war to end, try to rescue their parents and risk capture, or fight back. I'll leave it up to you to guess which option they go for. Suffice to say, the harsh reality of the situation will test their mettle and reveal their true characters.
It should be a familiar concept to anyone who's seen Red Dawn, and the eight main characters can be more or less boiled down to certain stereotypes - there's the gutsy heroine, her rather bland best friend, the Aussie bloke, the token Asian who's there to remind us that not all Asians are bad, the naive princess, the bad boy who turns out to be the most capable of them all, the Christian girl, and the stoner.
As in the case of the novel, the use of such clearly defined (and two-dimensional) characters is a neccessary evil that allows the viewer to get on with processing the story rather than worrying too much about who's who. My only real criticism of this is that as it's a home-grown, grass roots-driven approach to a highly speculative concept, it needs a high degree of realism in order to be effective and convincing. Casting soap stars and young models as a bunch of country teenagers doesn't really achieve that. I can see that they wanted to make Tomorrow When the War Began as appealing to a young demographic as possible, but I think it also would've benefitted from actors and actresses chosen less for looks and more for acting ability. Whilst we're on the topic of audience demographics - all of the female characters have rather clipped accents that make them sound British. I'm assuming this was a conscious decision to help give the film international marketability, and I suppose the fact that it's meant to be set in Western Australia (not that the film makes much reference to this) means that they probably thought they could get away with it. A lot of Australian viewers will probably find this annoying.
The novel of Tomorrow When the War Began is written in the first person, so Stuart Beattie (the writer-director) made the decision to have Ellie narrate the film via a home camera. I can understand that he probably used this device as a way to remain as close to the novel as possible (I guess that's one of the problems with adapting such a popular text) but I don't think it was really neccessary, nor is it especially filmic. One technique that he does use to good effect quite early on in the film are some brief moments of montage. They don't really move the film forward all that much, but they exist as an energetic piece of shorthand that gives the audience a feel for the characters without having to slow the film down too much. It's also an excuse to use a wide range of Australian pop-rock songs, which helps set the youth-orientated tone.
I did find it a little unbelievable that a bunch of 17 year olds would go camping without adult supervision and not drink any alcohol. Other than that the characterisations are mostly on the mark (if a little poorly acted at times). I think the film's glossy look sometimes works against it, when Ellie and her friends return to Werriwee it could've been a bit more atmospheric and spooky. On the other hand, Beattie's handling of action sequences and visual effects is highly impressive, so I guess the gloss-factor is excusable. In this respect the film is above and beyond most Australian films in terms of production quality and execution. So, as patchy as my review of this film is, I did actually like it a lot, and I'd be very happy to see any sequels. As someone who read the book a while ago, I think it's as good an adaptation as could be expected, and you don't need to have read the book to be able to enjoy it.