Tomorrow, When the War Began

— If you’re of a certain age you might remember John Milius’ Red Dawn, a paranoid right-wing fantasy about a Soviet-Cuban invasion of the United States (and a heroic group of small-town Colorado high school kids who formed a guerrilla resistance group) that came out in 1984, at the height of Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical war on the Evil Empire.

Though widely dismissed (and, in some quarters, mocked and derided) for its overt politics, Red Dawn is actually a very effective and at times a nearly thoughtful action movie that unapologetically declares the American experiment an ideal worth defending.

(A troubled remake that was originally scheduled to be released in 2010 will probably make it to theaters later this year. The film, originally delayed because of MGM’s financial problems, also had to be retooled to rebrand the new villains because of concerns about overseas box office. So what had been Chinese occupiers are now North Korean.)

The easy way to review Tomorrow When the War Began is to say it’s a kind of Australian Red Dawn, for it follows the same template, with a group of small-town youths returning from a camping trip (to a remote valley called Hell) to find that a faceless, nameless (though unmistakably, Asian) “coalition” enemy has rounded up their parents and teachers and chums from school, detaining them at the local fairgrounds (where, prior to the invasion, preparations were under way for the “Australia Day” festival).

And, after witnessing several atrocities (including the disruption of their Internet service - the fiends!), the youths organize themselves into a black-clad fighting force prepared to defend their homeland from the invading Other. If one were cynical, one might say that the chief difference between this film and Red Dawn is that while Milius’ movie came to a satisfying (and stirring) conclusion with the revelation that the United States eventually repelled the invading force, these warring youths stand ready for a sequel (that’s either on or off, depending on how you read the industry tea leaves; it might in fact depend on how well the movie does in U.S. release).

But we try hard not to be cynical, and so it’s only fair to point out that the film is in fact based on a young adult novel - the first in a series of seven - by John Marsden. They have proved very popular Down Under. In the ’90s, the books were required reading in many Australian high schools. It’s entirely possible that an American critic (and American audiences) might miss some of the political and cultural nuances of an Australian film. (I understand that there’s a strain of nationalism in Australia that borders on xenophobia, though whether this film serves as a critique of the condition or a rallying cry for yahoos is impossible for me to say. It does seem that potentially interesting ideas and moral ambiguities are momentarily raised only to be swept quickly from the table.)

It’s also possible that the demographic the film targets - which I’d guess would be roughly the same audience that read those young adult novels - might be blissfully unaware of the 1984 version of Red Dawn, except perhaps as a vestigial artifact in the video game culture.

In any case, the young cast is uniformly handsome (sort of like an Abercrombie & Fitch ad) and competent, although the dialogue they’re given to mouth rarely rises above cliche and catchphrase. “You’re either in or you’re out” is a typical line.

While all the young actors are relative unknowns even in their native Australia, Caitlin Stasey, who plays the nominal lead, an every girl named Ellie, has a surfeit of charisma. But even she is mistreated by the script and director Stuart Beattie’s at times over-emphatic direction, which can’t simply show us anything but has to explain it to us in words of one syllable.

But even with all that, the film isn’t precisely terrible - it’s even interesting as a product of a culture that’s much like our own yet different in key (if difficult to articulate) ways. You can feel the movie groping toward its own version of political correctness - there are two sort-of-interracial couples among the young commandos, and the unnamed enemy seems to have deployed about as many female troops as male - and it at least seems to have a conscience about killing human beings.

While, despite the R-rating, this isn’t really a movie for grown-ups, Tomorrow When the War Began can’t be completely dismissed as a teen movie either. It’s a curious thing, with sleek, fluid action set pieces and moments that approach - then bungle - grace.

Tomorrow, When the War Began 86 Cast: Andrew Ryan, Ashleigh Cummings, Caitlin Stasey, Chris Pang, Deniz Akdeniz, Lincoln Lewis, Phoebe Tonkin, Rachel Hurd-Wood Director: Stuart Beattie Rating: R, for violence Running time: 104 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 02/24/2012