In a small Australian town called Wirawee, teenage tomboy Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey) and her best friend Corrie Mackenzie (Rachel Hurd-Wood) lead a camping trip into the remote wilderness they know so well. Along for the fun and frolics are Corrie’s boyfriend Kevin (Lincoln Lewis), fun-loving but big brotherly bad boy Homer (Deniz Akdeniz), pampered princess Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin), enigmatic Chinese kid Lee (Chris Pang) - on whom Ellie harbours a not-so-secret crush - and repressed, religious girl Robin (Ashleigh Cummings). Unnerved by a late night sighting of hundreds of fighter jets in the sky, the kids return home to find their country invaded by hostile foreign powers that imprison their families and execute dissidents on sight. Armed with their survival skills and wilderness knowledge, the gutsy teenagers wage guerrilla warfare on the invaders.
Based on a well regarded series of young adult novels written by the late John Marsden, Tomorrow, When the War Began was a huge hit in its native Australia. Some accused the film of stealing ideas from the notorious Red Dawn (1984), but John Milius never held a monopoly on this sort of plot, which had precedent in the likes of Went the Day Well? (1942) and The North Star (1943). Whereas Milius’ patriotism descended into ludicrous camp (remember Harry Dean Stanton croaking: “avenge me”?), this tempers its gung-ho guerrilla thrills with characters that constantly question the rights and wrongs of what they are doing. Ellie is the first to take a life and is immediately unsettled to discover her victim was a young female soldier, as scared as she is. Made on a smaller budget than Hollywood fare, the Australian outback lends the action a more persuasively epic sweep. One that cannily harks back to the Aussie “bushmen” westerns of days gone by and retains their survivalist spirit. With rural Aussies used to surviving on hostile terrain, the young heroes emerge a more believably hardy and resourceful bunch.
The film is perhaps too glossy to pack the emotional wallop this story needed, but writer-director Stuart Beattie displays a keen understanding of his target teenage audience. The close-knit friendship between Ellie and Corrie remains persuasive, as the former grows increasingly hard-bitten and damaged, while the other characterisations are pleasingly atypical. Lee isn’t the token Asian but smart and capable, glamorous Fiona readily admits she may panic under pressure but still proves her mettle and the film does not feel the need to mock Robin’s Christian beliefs and incorporates her ethical dilemmas into the plot. “People stick labels on things till they aren’t sure who or what they are”, argues Lee in an early scene. The film implies a crisis unmasks our true nature. Therefore, Kevin becomes a panicky fool while Homer grows more mature and practical.
Aside from one silly scene where Ellie and Fiona are too busy gossiping about boys to notice soldiers sneaking up on their truck, this remains a rare survivalist film where characters intelligently debate what to do and come up with solid ideas. Even if they are prone to mistakes, these arise through believable decisions not irrationally stupid behaviour. Amidst some suspenseful scenes, Beattie finds room for a little irreverent humour, avoiding the pretension of other survivalist movies, but also deftly acknowledges the underlining message with an almost throwaway moment where Ellie glances at a mural of a colonial force subjugating aborigines. Now the tables have been turned.
In the Eighties, the enemy were Russians or at best ambiguously East European. Here the foreign powers first appear to be North Korean, until a radio news broadcast intriguingly reveals them as a UN sanctioned coalition force with designs on Australia’s natural resources. Beattie stages thrilling car stunts and shootouts but only skims the surface of Marsden’s novel. Nevertheless the film raises some intriguing ideas that, with sequels on the way, may yet be explored further. For now this remains a likeably humane entry in the Australian apocalypse genre.