Sitting in the cinema about six months ago I saw a trailer that took me by surprise. It showed a group of teenagers witnessing the invasion of their hometown making me immediately think, this must be the forthcoming remake of John Milius’s 1984 cold war thriller, Red Dawn. With that in mind I looked out for stars Chris Hemsworth and Adrianne Palicki but instead, the cast seemed to be mostly alumni from popular Aussie soaps Neighbours and Home & Away. Then the title hit the screen, Tomorrow When The War Began, not the most memorable or grammatically correct title but it left me intrigued.
Based on a hugely popular series of books written by Australian author John Marsden, this film adaptation of the first book in the series proved to be the highest grossing Australian film of last year and makes its way to Blu-ray and DVD in the UK this week. Written for the screen by Stuart Beattie, the writer of Collateral, Pirates Of The Carribean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl and Australia, the film also marks his first time in the director’s chair. The film stars Caitlin Stasey (Rachel Kinski in Neighbours), British born Rachel Hurd-Wood (Peter Pan, Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer) and Lincoln Lewis (Geoff Campbell in Home & Away).
The film tells the story of a group of high school friends living in the remote country town of Wirrawee, Australia. When they leave town for a camping trip in the bush one weekend their lives are suddenly and violently upended by a war that no one saw coming. As an invading army rolls into town the group find themselves cut off from their families and their friends. The teens must learn to escape, adapt, survive and fight back against a hostile military force.
Aside from the obvious comparisons with Red Dawn, the biggest bugbear of the film is the fact that it lacks the conviction to identify the invading force. One character gives a speech about what difference does a flag make if the town is being attacked but if that is really the case, why is the army represented here formed entirely of soldiers of Asian descent? Are we supposed to assume it’s North Korea or China and if so what is their motivation for the invasion? These questions are never really addressed, as a result making the film feel a little hollow and vague, much to the detriment of the plausibility of the story.
The key themes in the film are less about the situation and more about the journey the characters are forced to take. They go from regular teenagers to a veritable fighting force in the space of 90 minutes. The young cast are unexpectedly good and the thousands of hours spent between them acting in Aussie soaps has certainly paid off, however the diversity of the characterisations is not particularly original, the role call sounds like a John Hughes movie; the girl who has grown up on a farm, her best friend, the jock, the wild and crazy guy, the pretty blonde, the religious one, the shy boy and the stoner.
Caitlin Stasey makes a decent lead and her transformation from hard working farm girl to gun toting badass is pretty convincing and quite refreshing to see a strong female protagonist in a film such as this. Her narration throughout the film holds the story together but feels a little like a talking book at times by mostly stating the obvious. Rachel Hurd-Wood, who is probably the most accomplished actress among the cast, surprisingly makes the least impression in a best friend role lacking any real personality, while her reaction to a situation regarding her boyfriend’s lack of courage is far from believable. Award winning actor Colin Friels turns up for a one scene cameo purely for exposition and serves no other purpose.
The continued games of cat and mouse between the teenagers and the invading force are really well handled and ramp up the tension with bursts of superbly staged action. There are a number of standout scenes including a car chase involving a refuse truck and heavily armed all terrain vehicles, a face-off between the teens and a persistent helicopter and a climactic all out attack on a bridge. The overall pacing of the film is also very good and packs a lot into the slender 90 minute running time, it’s unusual to see a teen film based on a book running for less than three hours these days.
Fans of films with endings will be slightly disappointed that just as the film really hits its stride it all ends leaving the story wide open for a sequel, in this respect it reminded me of The Golden Compass, however unlike that film a follow-up is already in the works. Having never read the books, I am presuming the ending remains faithful to the original source and as an adaptation of book one in a series of seven combined with the popularity of the books it is highly likely that the film was made with a view to becoming a franchise.
Despite my initial reservations about the film being a Red Dawn knock-off, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the film. It was gripping enough, with mostly believable characters, a solid premise and thanks to the slimmed down running time, never boring. It’s just a shame it lacks the backbone to identify the invaders.
Visually the film looks excellent with a great transfer which copes equally well with the scenes set in sun-scorched daylight and candle-lit darkness. A couple of scenes featuring CGI aircraft are well presented with really clear, realistic special effects but a number of scenes featuring actors working in front of green screen actually look awful and take away from the stunning location photography in the rest of the film.
The sound quality is also very good with numerous over-the-top explosions blasting the speakers along with helicopters and gunfire providing a good workout for your audio system. Dialogue, music and sound effects are generally well mixed with little need for adjustment.
Owing to the film’s phenomenal success Down Under the release is well served with a vast number of extras carried over from the Aussie release. The special features include over an hour of behind the scenes footage, special effects breakdowns, interviews and character profiles, all of which are pretty lightweight but interesting enough. There is also a chance to see a two minute alternate ending that is less gung-ho and more understated than the one used in the final cut but I think the filmmakers still made the right choice.
The disc also includes a choice of three audio commentaries; one from writer/ director Stuart Beattie, another from the producers Andrew Mason and Michael Boughen and a mini commentary by the writer of the original book, John Marsden. Beattie’s talk track offers the best insights into the filmmaking process and the challenges faced by turning a well known, well loved source into a final product that will please newcomers and fans alike.
Film – 3 out of 5
A good, if not wholly original, premise well played by its young cast but slightly let down by leaving the invading army anonymous.
Visuals – 4 out of 5
A good 1080p transfer with stunning use of location scenery and mostly decent special effects but green screen scenes look naff.
Audio – 4 out of 5
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix offers a good work out for your system with loud explosions, atmospheric effects and a contemporary soundtrack.
Extras – 4 out of 5
A wealth of special features covering all aspects of the film and a choice of in-depth audio commentaries.
Presentation – 3 out of 5
Very nice menus with animated warplanes and explosions but the cover image is generic and weak.
Overall – 4 out of 5
A promising start to another potential teen franchise, well presented with a packed disc.
Tomorrow When The War Began is out on Blu-ray from today.