Sunday, April 10, 2011

Film Review with Robert Mann - Tomorrow, When The War Began

Tomorrow, When the War Began ** 

Aside from a few adverts shown on television recently, there has been so little marketing or publicity of any kind for Tomorrow, When the War Began that you may not have any clue that it is even being released in cinemas this week, let alone what it actually is. An Australian adventure film based on the highly acclaimed young adult invasion (not of the alien kind for once but rather the old fashioned one nation invading another variety) themed novel of the same name by John Marsden, the film has already proven to be a box office success upon its release in cinemas down under last year – so much so that it looks likely that two proposed sequels (and possibly even a speculated television series after them based on the final four books in the Tomorrow series – Darkness, By My Friend, Burning For Revenge, The Night Is For Hunting and The Other Side of Dawn) based on follow up books The Dead of the Night and The Third Day, The Frost will actually go ahead, with the first of the two already having been greenlit and filming on it due to commence in September this year – where it became the highest grossing release of the year and also cleaned up at several awards ceremonies over there, receiving five nominations at the 19th Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards as well as taking home four wins at the 2010 Inside Film Awards, two at the 2010 Australian Screen Sound Guild Sound Awards and two wins and an additional seven nominations at the 52nd Australian Film Institute Awards.
But the supposed bestseller of a novel, despite having sold over three million copies between 1993 and 1998, having been translated into numerous languages and apparently being regarded as one of the 100 best books for teenage readers published in America between 1966 and 2000, is no Twilight (or anything even close) and it is likely that this film adaptation will go by completely ignored in cinemas, hindered not only by a lack of marketing and publicity for the film itself but also a lack of awareness of and of interest in the book upon which it is based. It certainly won’t help that the all Australian production – it was financed entirely with Australian money, filmed in Hunter Region and the Blue Mountains in New South Wales and boasts an almost entirely Australian cast and crew – hasn’t exactly been well received by critics to date, even with it receiving a decent 63% fresh rating on website Rotten Tomatoes and achieving lot of awards success in its native Australia, or the fact that the cast consists entirely of actors who, with the possible exception of Rachel Hurd-Wood, who has appeared in a number of American, British and European productions including Peter Pan, An American Haunting, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Dorian Gray and Solomon Kane, will be almost entirely unknown to British viewers and that writer/director Stuart Beattie, while having worked on the screenplays for the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Collateral, 30 Days of Night, Australia and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, has never directed any features before and his name will be completely meaningless to a lot of people. 

So, box office success is almost certain to elude Tomorrow, When the War Began but with such huge awards success it can’t be that bad can it? Apparently it can and the taste of the Australian awards bodies that levelled such acclaim on this film must seriously be called into question. Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey) is just a regular seventeen year old Australian teacher from the small town of Wirrawee who wants to go on a camping trip to a valley some distance away with her school mates – close childhood friend Corrie Mackenzie (Rachel Hurd-Wood), Corrie’s boyfriend Kevin Holmes (Lincoln Lewis), next door neighbour Homer Yannos (Deniz Akzeniz), high school crush Lee Takkam (Chris Pang), rich and beautiful Fiona Maxwell (Phoebe Tonkin) and extremely religious Robyn Mathers (Ashleigh Cummings). “It’s just a couple of days. What the worst that could happen?” Ellie says to her parents. Apparently the country can be invaded by an enemy force. 

While Ellie and her friends are off enjoying themselves in the distant valley they see wake up one night to see a sky full of military aircraft and upon returning to their hometown they discover that something is seriously wrong. Power to the houses has been cut, pets and livestock have been left dead or dying and all the people have vanished. With a growing sense of unseen danger, the friends make a shocking discovery. The local showground has been turned into a prison camp and the town's entire population are being held captive by a foreign military force known as the “Coalition”. When the hostile invaders become alerted to the presence of the teenagers, Ellie and her friends – along with a new recruit, stoner Chris (Andy Ryan) – decide to fight back but to do so they must leave behind who they were and become soldiers in a guerrilla war that will require much sacrifice from every one of them and that will ensure their lives are never going to be the same again. 

Wow, the Australian awards bodies that levelled so much acclaim at Tomorrow, When the War Began must have really low standards. I’m not saying that this is a film that is deserving of any Razzie nominations or anything like that but there is no way that serious American or British film awards would even consider a film like this for nominations, let alone wins. There is precisely nothing about this film that is special or remarkable in any way and by and large it feels like a decidedly average and completely forgettable teen movie, and one that often feels quite amateurish in terms of its production values. The teen soap style drama is lacking major dramatic impact, the characters are mostly two dimensional stereotypes – the strong willed leader, the childlike and emotional romantic, the beautiful rich girl, the bible bashing pacifist, the outlaw with a dislike for authority, the coward who leaves his friends behind in a firefight, the interesting and intelligent Asian guy and, of course, the stoned out loser – and the characterisation is so poor as to make it really hard to care when a major character falls victim to the war. 

All this, combined with an absence of notable character development before the characters find themselves at war – all that we get before and indeed after mostly relates to their romantic entanglements with one another and there is insufficient insight given into the characters to make the transformations they go through truly believable – makes it hard to really care about the characters and what happens for the most part, even though there are rare occasions when the film does manage to make us empathise with them a little. Additionally, the invading force is every bit as stereotypical as any of the characters, the enemy here being an Asian “coalition” who, aside from one extremely uninformative radio transmission heard by the characters, we know absolutely nothing about and, with no one bad guy or leader to hate, is a foe that is largely faceless. 

It also doesn’t help that the scenario isn’t particularly believable, the idea of a major nation being invaded by another in the manner depicted here being somewhat hard to buy in the world of today. With such weak plotting, lacklustre characterisation and so-so dialogue – “That kind of stuff doesn’t happen here, not in this country”: that’s the standard of conversation we get in this film – it’s hard to imagine that this film adaptation will actually prove pleasing to anyone who has read the book upon which it is based and the film almost seems to know that it isn’t worthy of the book’s seemingly stellar reputation, coming across like it is mocking itself when, in one scene, Ellie says to Corrie as she is reading “Good book?” prompting Corrie to reply “Better than the movie” to which Ellie replies “Book usually are” – rightly said. There again, it probably isn’t just fans of the book who are likely to be dissatisfied with this film. While the blending together of 90210 style drama with action sequences, a few laughs and a scene where one of the male characters goes shirtless and the blond female one strips down to a red bikini will ensure that easy to please teenagers get plenty of enjoyment out of the film, anyone wanting more will not find Tomorrow to be a bright day. 

With little to work with, the cast members fail to impress, generally proving passable but often delivering the standard of acting you would expect to find in an Australian soap opera, something which probably shouldn’t be too surprising given that Caitlin Stasey is a former cast member of Neighbours and Lincoln Lewis, Phoebe Tonkin and Ashleigh Cummings are all formerly of Home and Away. Caitlin Stasey and Rachel Hurd-Wood occasionally prove quite decent and all the female cast members at least prove very likable but there is absolutely nothing award worthy about any of the performances here, making it a bit of a mystery as to why Stasey won Best Actress at the 2010 Inside Film Awards and why Ashleigh Cummings got nominated for the Young Actor Award at the 52nd Australian Film Institute Awards. 

For all the failings, however, the film is not without its moments. The action sequences are generally pretty good with an aerial dog fight and a chase sequence that sees a rubbish truck being pursued by two buggies providing ample thrills while the explosive bridge blowing up climax proves to be quite exciting. The film also occasionally proves funny and even tense and, with beautiful settings and locations providing a stunning backdrop to the film’s events, there is also some quite stunning cinematography, even if the majority of the camerawork is nothing remarkable. It’s a shame then that the film is so lacking in other key areas. As a war movie it lacks grit and it even fails to stand out as a teen movie. So, Tomorrow, When the War Began is a film that has a fair amount of fight in it but is just too light. Fairly subpar then, it is unlikely to satisfy anyone, the sequel that is suggested by the open ending (and that we already know is definitely on its way) not being a very exciting proposition. Australian moviegoers made this first film enough of a commercial success to get the sequel made but, for anyone who looks for something substantial in a film, tomorrow can come quick enough. I chose to see Tomorrow today but it is a film so underwhelming that it most definitely isn’t worth rushing out for. 

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

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