There's always been a kind of frayed-edged dangerousness to Australian cinema, a lawlessness that brought refreshing unpredictability to even the most tired of genres. The wildness that defines Australia, with its craggy rock formations and weird-ass creatures, seeps into its movies, to the point that even "Tomorrow, When the War Began," a fairly shopworn riff on "Red Dawn" (as filtered through untold modern young adult novels), feels more essential and engaging, if only for its earthy Australian-ness.
The movie begins with a video transmission from our lead character, the spiky high school student Ellie (Caitlin Stasey), which lingers just long enough for you to think, "Oh lord is this going to be another found footage movie?" Thankfully, it's not. And quickly we realize that it was a framing device, and that most of the movie will take place in flashback (hence the movie's grammatically wonky title). Despite the eeriness of the brief video prologue, the movie stars, in earnest, with a charmingly John Hughes-ian set-up: a group of characters from a small rural town (the fictional Wirrawee) want to get together and go away for a weekend in the outback. Quickly, the pleasingly multi-culti group is assembled – Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood), Ellie's best friend; Kevin (Lincoln Lewis), Corrie's boyfriend; Homer (Deniz Akdeniz), the local bad boy; Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin), a prissy townie; Lee (Chris Pang), Ellie's romantic interest; and Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings), a good girl and son of the local preacher. The kids are introduced and assembled in a snappily edited montage that suggests more characterization than is actually provided, but it still works well enough as a kind of cinematic shorthand, partly because the move trades on such well-treaded teen movie archetypes. They set off for an area of brush called, of course, Hell.
While out on their camping excursion, which includes a lot of PG-13 canoodling and philosophical musings under a star-packed sky (don't you know it, in one of the more tiresome movie clichés, their cell phones just don't work out in the bush), they notice a flock of military planes soaring across the sky. They black out the stars like giant bats, which, this being Australia, you have to assume are also jetting through the darkness, and while Ellie makes note of their odd appearance, none of our main characters think much of it. Why would they?
Well, when they get back to town, they understand that something is very much amiss. They each visit their respective homes, in a kind of reverse/unraveling of the earlier introductory sequence – no one is home and Ellie's dog has been left outside to die. (Dead animals are a touchstone of Australian genre cinema and it's nice to see the legacy upheld here). Eventually the group heads into town, where they see most of the citizens rounded up and forced into internment camps, guarded by heavily armed paramilitary officials of vaguely Asian origin. They watch as one townsperson steps out of line… and gets executed. It's a shocking moment (there's a jolt of red mist that accompanies the execution) and it raises the stakes appropriately.
The rest of the movie is the kids scrambling around, trying to stay out of sight, and then finally making up their minds to stop hiding and start fighting back. Their transition from being moony-eyed teens to being moony-eyed revolutionaries is handled fairly well, and the group dynamics seem natural and believable (for the most part), so that it never appears that they're just dressing up and playing army. All of the kids are really good actors, too, handsome without looking like they should be peering back from the cover of a fashion magazine. Stasey, in particular, is a magnetic lead, tough and sexy and vulnerable all at once (in a way that only a teenage girl can be), her face a collection of sharp angles, underneath a tangle of brown hair.
"Tomorrow, When the War Began" was written and directed by Stuart Beattie, from a best-selling novel by John Marsden. Beattie is a veteran writer of big budget studio junk like the original "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Australia" and "G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra," but he was also responsible for Michael Mann's moody thriller "Collateral," and thankfully there's more of the latter in "Tomorrow, When the War Began" than any of his more blockbuster fare. There are a number of tightly knotted suspense pieces in "Tomorrow, When the War Began," in particular a breathless moment where the group is hiding from a helicopter, and the climactic act of resistance, where our protagonists plot to blow up a crucial bridge.
Beattie also does a good enough job of surrounding the invasion in an appropriate amount of mystery. "Red Dawn" and its ilk were less fun because their rah-rah Reagan-era politics were so front-and-center. Here the soldiers are cryptically referred to as a "Pacific coalition" who want to capture Australia for its resources and landmass (apparently whoever is invading has a thing for dirt and weird egg-laying mammals). The problem with this sustained obliqueness though is that things become unnecessarily drawn out, and as the movie progresses, those of us who aren't aware that this is the first of a seemingly endless string of novels, begin to understand that the movie won't end in a natural conclusion but, instead, will wrap up (sort of) in an infuriating cliffhanger.
All that said, "Tomorrow, When the War Began" is a satisfying slice of young adult cinema, more engaging and enigmatic than the first three "Twilight" movies and able to produce an air of uniqueness in an overtly familiar, sci-fi-ish scenario. It would probably seem a lot less surprising (and, yes, there are a few genuinely shocking and violent moments) if the movie were set anywhere but Australia. It's a country crawling with things that want to bite and sting and shoot poison at you. Add in an invading army and things get even wilder and more unhinged. "Tomorrow, When the War Began" isn't groundbreaking, but it is fast-paced and genuinely entertaining, and its inherently Australian attitude gives it some much-needed edge. Vegemite sandwich not included. [B]