Being something of a book snob I tended to spurn ‘Young Adult’ fiction as a teenager, but when I stumbled across John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began back in the nineties, it made a big impression on me. Or at least its gutsy young heroine did.
When Australia is unexpectedly invaded by a hostile military force, Ellie Linton and some friends happen to be camping in the bush. Cut off from their families, the teenagers’ mettle is tested to the full, and Ellie proves a natural survivor.
I was far from being Ellie’s only fan. Who wouldn’t fall for a sensitive but savvy country girl who can worry about the meaning of a kiss one day, and blow up a petrol tanker the next? The book series became hugely popular in Australia and around the world, so this big-screen adaptation should enjoy a large, if demanding, audience.
It’s a commercial, action-packed teen-flick that’s actually better than it sounds. A bit better, anyway. The budget isn’t quite Hollywood-scale but the effects (plenty of explosions here) are spectacular and the tension ratchets up impressively.
First-time director and esteemed screenwriter Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean) has settled for a script that’s cheesy in places (one unfortunate character is forced to speak almost entirely in metaphors) but thanks to the source material, the eight teenagers are relatively complex and engaging. They might start out as stereotypes but, under the pressure of their new circumstances, none of them stay the same.
We see a petty criminal evolving into a guerilla leader, a high school jock revealing his true colours, a religious pacifist turning protector. It’s an intriguing premise and the implicit question – what would you do? – should prove compelling for viewers of all ages.
As in the books, the nationality of the invading army is never revealed, allowing the film to deliver a more abstract, philosophical view of war than we usually see in action movies. Blink and you’ll miss it, but there’s some politicised reflection on the invader-becomes-the-invaded aspect of the story.
On the whole, however, questions of national identity are restricted to characters looking meaningfully out over the (undeniably breathtaking) Blue Mountains.
As a fan of the books, I thought ex-Neighbours star Caitlin Stasey was perfectly cast as the adolescent amazon. Her winning performance helps make this film worth casting aside your snobbery, just for 103 minutes or so.
3 1/2 stars