Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Australia Invaded: Tomorrow When the War Began

The freedom of Australia depends on a handful of teenagers. Fortunately, they are mostly quite good looking. That means they have even more to lose and will therefore be fiercer fighters. A rag tag band of students duly unleash their inner Wolverines in Stuart Beattie’s Tomorrow When the War Began (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities and streams on demand via Freestyle Digital Media’s Facebook platform.

The time is twenty-for hours from now. The place is coastal New South Wales. It is a nice area to grow up and raise a family. At least it was until a foreign military invaded. Ellie Linton and her friends do not know that yet. They have been camping out in a remote mountain clearing misnamed “Hell.” When they return, cell service is out, the land lines are down, and their families are nowhere to be found.

Eventually, they discover the town’s fairground has been turned into a detention center by a vaguely Asian looking army. After a few narrow escapes and a considerable amount of bickering, they decide it is time to take the fight to their invaders and that strategically positioned bridge looks like a good place to start.

Based on John Marsden’s bestselling Tomorrow series of YA novels, TWTWB obviously owes a debt to the original old school Red Dawn, but that’s okay. Considering how cool the classic Dawn remains, it is downright bizarre it has not been emulated more often. Frankly, Beattie somewhat tarries in the first act, establishing full well and good just which teens like whom (Linton has a thing for the Lee Takkan, while the well heeled Fiona Maxwell fancies Homer Yannos, the slightly delinquent son of Greek immigrants.)

Still, he juggles a lot of teen angst relatively nimbly. His adaptation also treats evangelical character Robyn Mathers with respect, even when presenting her reverence for life as a source of friction with her less conflicted friends. (Why not just throw some St. Thomas Aquinas books at her? Or better yet, throw them at the enemy.)

On one hand, the conspicuous effort taken to not identify the nationality of the invaders is somewhat problematic (one would think that would be valuable intel to suss out). Based on their rhetoric about natural resources and establishing stability in the Pacific region, China sounds like an obvious suspect. Yet, it allows the film to effectively ratchet up the teens’ mood of what-the-heck-is-going-on bewilderment and perhaps sets the scene for big revelations in films to follow.

As Linton and Takkan, the more or less leads, Caitlin Stasey and Chris Pang are reasonably charismatic presences and wholly credible action figures. Phoebe “The Secret Circle” Tonkin is also surprisingly engaging as the Clueless-esque Maxwell, but Deniz Akdeniz’s Yannos seems to be looking for a Welcome Back Kotter reboot much of the time.

Once Linton and her comrade get organized and down to business, the film starts cooking nicely. It certainly sets up viewers, leaving us wanting more. Since TWTWB ranks as Australia’s highest grossing domestically produced release of 2010, more is indeed reportedly on the way. That is rather welcome news. It is certainly fun and professional grade popcorn fare that also seriously addresses themes of freedom, responsibility, and sacrifice. It is exactly the sort of film that could make a mint for Hollywood, but apparently they are content to leave such money on the table.

As is customary for most imports, TWTWB will only open in select cities this Friday (2/24) including the Criterion 7 in New Haven and the Palace 18 in Miami, but it will also be accessible to audiences nationwide, through Freestyle’s digital distribution on Facebook. Recommended as a non-taxing teen action picture with a good message and the promise of even better installments down the road, TWTWB is definitely worth checking out from the comfort of your own laptop.