Director/Screenwriter: Stuart Beattie
By Roderick Heath
Aussies love action movies, but Aussies don’t make action movies, or at least, have barely tried since the heyday of George Miller’s Mad Max films and Brian Trenchard-Smith’s tacky Ozploitation classics. Or, if they want to, they go to Hollywood. Some think that’s a result of the generally low budgets of Aussie films, others that it’s a conspiracy by the status-obsessed haute bourgeois masters of the government funding bodies with disdain for the popular audience, or because the generally abysmal run of genre films financed by the FFC during the ’80s and early ‘90s—most of which barely saw release—proved that sort of thing a blind alley. All three arguments have their accurate points. Either way, in the past few years, Aussie cinema’s been beset by turgid, plotless, middlebrow family dramas about teenagers coming to terms with their Lebanese heritage and trying to forget about their schizophrenic brothers long enough to lose their virginity with the hot shiksa down the street. That or the gruesome spectacle that is the mangled corpse of our comedy tradition, flayed to death by incompetent hacks.
I’m writing with a touch of tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, of course, but Aussie cinema has faced a real problem in recent years, stretching over a chasm between hand-crafted prestige pieces and the dynamics of a real, sustained industry: when I talk to other people my age and younger, most have little real affection for local cinema, because it bores them. Tomorrow, When the War Began is an attempt to rectify that situation, with director and writer Stuart Beattie, Sydney-born but with a long track record of big-scale Hollywood hits to his writing credits, including Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and Collateral (2004), taking the reins for an adaptation of the popular series of young adult novels by John Marsden. (The first novel in the series was published in 1993, when I was 14, but that was the same year I was working my way through War and Peace, so no, I never did read it.) Beattie also contributed to the last stab at an Aussie blockbuster, Baz Luhrmann’s truly terrible Australia (2008), but at the very least, Tomorrow is a significant advance on that.
Tomorrow, When the War Began depicts a group of young friends from a rural Australian town called Wirrawee who venture deep into the bush for a camping holiday. They’re a good-looking collection of stereotypes: tough farm-girl Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey); her best friend Corrie McKenzie (Rachel Hurd-Wood), who’s high on love with cricket-playing golden boy Kevin Holmes (Lincoln Lewis); good-natured, mischief-making rebel Homer Yannos (Deniz Akdeniz); high-class, drop-dead-gorgeous but secretly insecure Fiona “Fi” Maxwell (Phoebe Tonkin); goody-two-shoes Christian Robyn Mathers (Ashleigh Cummings); and Lee Takkan (Chris Pang), introverted, piano-playing son of local Chinese restaurateurs, whom Ellie evasively fancies. They venture into an area of bushland known as “Hell” because of its inaccessibility, and find an idyllic waterhole they adopt as a private paradise. Whilst camped out, they are awakened by the odd spectacle of dozens of military aircraft flying overhead.
When they return to civilisation a couple of days later, they find all the outlying farms around Wirrawee have been deserted, and, venturing closer to town, discover that all the locals have been rounded up and placed in a concentration camp located in the main showground by an invading army of what seems to be a coalition of Asian nations. Initially unnerved and taking time to adjust to new imperatives, soon enough, the kids prove they’re all right, particularly the quick-witted natural warrior Ellie and the strategic-minded Homer, discovering their capacity to kill enemy soldiers and improvise effectively when in dire straits. Picking up another member in the form of rambling stoner Chris Lang (Andy Ryan), they retreat back into Hell, but venture out again to attempt a meaningful bit of guerrilla warfare. Wirrawee adjoins one of the major harbours the enemy are utilising to funnel their convoys inland, and so destroying the only road bridge that accesses the harbour is an obvious way to slow the invasion.
The similarity of the basic story to John Milius’ Red Dawn (1984) has been much remarked upon, though, of course, it’s a type of story with very, very long roots, back to Xenophon, and there’s no sign of Milius’s rugged poeticism and nativist chest-thumping (more’s the pity, perhaps). As young adult fare, the story is inspired, tapping into irresistible fantasies not merely of adventure and upturned norms that appeal to the anarchic energy of teenagers, but with the notion that within us lurks a latent potential for heroism, and particularly in the socially malformed, whose quirks may in fact be frustrated potential. Simultaneously, the story echoes deep aspects of Australian social mythology: the ANZAC legend of the good-natured local lads who step up when the time is right and commit fearlessly to war. Marsden retrofitted that legend to absorb a gallery of new-age ideals: girls and boys of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities constitute this new ANZAC force, and they perform a lot of soul-searching in their downtime about what exactly they’re doing to themselves as well as to their enemy. The story emphasis is more on teamwork than on exceptionalism.
As a straightforward, entertaining action flick for a broad, young audience, Tomorrow, When the War Began is a solid success: it certainly manages to tell a coherent, tense story with drama and strong production values, and without patronising its viewers too much. Beattie’s filmmaking, whilst not distinctive, is extremely slick, and his staging of a set-piece chase through the ruined streets of Wirrawee in which Ellie and Robyn try to ferry a wounded Lee to safety utilising a garbage truck as an armoured personnel carrier, with enemy soldiers in pursuit, offers quality thrills and spills. Beattie’s success is perhaps owing to his mastery of the rhythms of Hollywood storytelling, but his actual writing is mostly merely serviceable. Whilst some the dialogue is poor and the characters revolve around shallowly conceived traits, they’re acceptably stylised portraits of modern Aussie youth, melding argot learnt from TV and the internet with more local parochialisms. The cast, whilst unpolished, is generally effective, if not sporting any obvious stand-outs in charisma and acting cunning: they fulfill their one-dimensional roles as well as need be. An appearance by old warhorse Colin Friels as the town’s grumpy dentist who comes out of hiding to act as battlefield surgeon to Lee before disappearing again, provides exactly the right sort of bracing, no-nonsense energy for a brief moment.
The adaptation goes through the motions of some basic high-school-level ethical and moral inquiries, with Robyn particularly as a pacifistic Christian initially decrying the violence the others are quickly adapting to. The human cost of what warfare entails is presented as a clear issue, giving it a vaguely thoughtful edge, though it’s not to be confused with something philosophical or resonant. There’s potential in the friction between what the film celebrates in its characters, their loyalties, quirks, playfulness, and values, and the gradually necessary deadening of those qualities, which often distract them near-fatally, in the exigencies of war. However, the film finally shies away from in order to avoid spoiling its rah-rah positivism and bothering the audience to think too much. The film’s most curious touch comes when Ellie glances at a mural on the wall of one of the town shops, depicting the arrival of white settlers in Australia, and zeroes in on the Aboriginal figures in the background. The idea that soon all Aussies will face the same problem as the first Australians in contending with invasion and oppression is both suggestive and yet confirms a cop-out, considering the shallow patriotism the film proffers—the invasion comes shortly after Australia Day, and the pristine evocation of a small-town idyll is cutesy to the max—and the lack of any sort of follow-through on the notion. Dialogue conveying the YA themes (“People stick labels on things, until they can’t really see them,” Lee pronounces, and I vomit) results in some very sticky patches that have the opposite effect to that intended, for I wondered why people weren’t killing each other.
Efforts to invest the film with humour, like Homer’s constant susceptibility to slapstick falls and accidents, like when he’s devastated by a blind-side tackle when distracted by the sight of Fi stripping down to a bikini during a friendly footy match, are likewise more than a bit clichéd and heavy-handed. Another problem is perhaps easy to overemphasise. In Marsden’s novel, the invaders’ nationalities were left purposefully vague; deciding that they’ll be Asian brings up the spectre of the reactionary flipside to the ANZAC myth, the perpetual paranoia about being swamped, forcibly or otherwise, by the Yellow Peril is one that’s never really entirely faded in the national psyche (evinced as a grossly overemphasised issue in the recent federal election). The motives of the invading coalition are only described in one radio broadcast—they want to exploit Australia’s wealth of space and natural resources. Whilst Beattie’s choice in this regard is logical and perhaps timely, with the general geopolitical mood over China’s emerging preeminence and what this means for Australia’s place in Asia, his efforts to keep his enemy as relatively faceless and undescribed as possible don’t really deal with the problem. As I’ve said, this can be overemphasised, but when exploiting populist fantasies, you do have to be careful which populist fantasies you’re engaging.
Also, whilst it’s understandable that the film, in seeking that general audience, not get too caught up in grinding realism, I nonetheless kept blanching at the glib portrayal of guerrilla warfare. You will rarely have seen such a bland, bloodless vision of war before, and rarely one fought by such good-looking people. The one moment of truly sharp violence, when Ellie sees one uppity man get shot in the head with callous efficiency by an officer on the showground concentration camp, is contextualising—everything that follows is, essentially, in reaction to and avoidance of this sort of thuggery. But Beattie offers some cheapening shortcuts through the difficulties of, say, transporting wounded Lee through the thick bush back to the camp in Hell, and I began to wonder, for all the rhetoric attempting to encompass humanistic concerns, if this vision of war looks a bit too much like a really fun game. Perhaps the film’s most compelling, and yet subtly facile, scene is when an outraged Ellie, finding that Chris has fallen asleep whilst on watch, threatens to shoot him for dereliction of duty—as was historic practice—to his stark terror, whilst the others watch appalled. That moment results in all of them questioning just exactly what they owe each other, and yet the fact remains that the failure here is as much one of leadership as of soldiering—Ellie should not have put the half-toasted Chris on such duty, and her bullying reaction is terrible captaining.
Nor is the context presented with truly convincing detail. The enemies’ pursuing all-terrain vehicles look like beach buggies with machine guns attached, an odd kind of unspecific and unconvincing military hardware that makes the battle seem more like a glorified joyride. And the perpetual problem that all enemy armies face in the movies, the amazingly bad aim of their soldiers, is especially marked. I kept wondering how these young folk—Ellie and Homer are the only ones familiar with guns, that is, bolt-action rifles—kept managing to cock and fire off machine guns without any prior experience or jamming problems. Anyone who’s read or seen the film of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which Marsden’s novel may have taken as a partial model, will have a sense of the gruelling necessities in trying to demolish a strategic bridge with partisan operatives, and this film’s riposte—a plan involving using cattle to drive the guarding soldiers off the bridge, and a petrol tanker as a giant Molotov cocktail—is fun, but hard to take seriously and sits flimsily in the memory. These are aspects that contribute to my final impression of a movie that’s entertaining enough while it lasts but that represents a finally facile and possibly even wrong-headed vision of warfare and will be almost completely forgotten after a couple of months. In that regard Tomorrow is a less-than-ideal revival of the Aussie action film that I doubt anyone will still adore as they do Mad Max 2 in 30 years. Nonetheless, it’s definitely hit home with audiences, proving so far the biggest purely home-grown success in over 20 years, and as an hour and a half of diverting flash, it’s still a refreshing change. l