THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN"
Tomorrow When the War Began is an Australian action movie based on a young adult novel by John Marsden. It begins with two teenage friends, Ellie (Caitlin Stasey) and Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood), planning a camping trip into a remote section of the outback known as “Hell.” After recruiting several other pals (male and female) for the voyage, they hop in the Land Rover and make their way to the spot, where they spend a couple of days swimming, flirting, and enjoying the escape from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives. This sounds like the set-up for a horror movie, right? I was expecting hillbillies or a psycho killer to pop up. Instead, something more interesting occurs: the teens notice a fleet of military aircraft in the sky. It's a troubling, unexplainable sight. They sense something is wrong. Upon returning home, they discover that their homeland has been invaded by another country. Their families were captured and are being held in containment facilities, along with most of the rest of the population. And now, as loose cannons, they must find a way not only to avoid being captured themselves, but also to do something to change the situation.
At its core, this is a story of lost innocence. The teens go into the wilderness expecting just to have fun. When they come back, the world has changed around them. Suddenly, they must become warriors who will fight for their country. None of them are equipped for such a challenge. Ellie, a natural leader, pushes the others to take a stand. Some of them are not ready for their new roles, especially rich girl Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin), who worries that she'll freeze in fear if confronted by danger. There's also Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings), a religious girl whose beliefs preclude her from killing anyone, under any circumstances. Despite their shared hesitancy, a trial by fire awaits; the bad guys – whose purpose I will not divulge here – quickly catch wind of the teens' existence and begin pursuing them.
There are two things I really like about Tomorrow When the War Began. The first is its presentation of fun-loving adolescents abruptly being forced to grow up. All of the characters feel the world is essentially a safe place. When they are confronted with proof that it is not, they must scramble to assimilate this information into their shared worldview, then figure out an appropriate response. There's something inherently relatable about that idea. Whether it was the Kennedy assassination, the Gulf War, or 9/11, most of us can recall a time when scary real-life events woke us up. The actors all convincingly portray the trepidation their characters feel in this new, scary situation. I suspect TWTWB will appeal to fans of the Hunger Games novels; in a thematic respect, they are spiritual cousins.
The other thing I like about the movie is the action. There are a handful of clever, well-executed action scenes scattered throughout. Writer/director Stuart Beattie (perhaps best known on these shores for penning Michael Mann's Collateral) displays a natural sense of staging. He makes the action exciting while still keeping it grounded in reality. These kids aren't superheroes. They're scared, they sometimes make mistakes, and they act on instinct. A truck chase through city streets is particularly tense, as is a sequence in which the gang tries to hide from hovering helicopters, whose bright spotlights continually search them out. In moments like these, Beattie cranks up both the human drama (we know there is much at stake) and the suspense.
As is often the case with action pictures, Tomorrow When the War Began occasionally relies on far-fetched coincidences. For example, one character just happens to know how to drive the oil tanker that was all-too-conveniently procured. Other times, characters stand near explosions, yet are miraculously unharmed. The story's attempt to include a potential romance for Ellie also proves to be a little underdeveloped.
These minor flaws don't detract too much from the film's many pleasures, though. I got hooked on Tomorrow When the War Began instantly, and I found myself on a fun ride. This is a movie that packs in a lot of very cool action while still addressing its themes intelligently. It's one to seek out.
( out of four)
Note: Tomorrow When the War Began opens in limited theatrical release on February 24. It will also be available on demand that same day. If the film isn't opening at a cinema near you, be sure to check whatever VOD service you use.
Tomorrow When the War Began is unrated, but would probably be the equivalent of a PG-13. It contains some violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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