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Tomorrow, When the War Began  (2012)
2 Stars
Directed by Stuart Beattie.
Cast: Caitlin Stasey, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Deniz Akdeniz, Lincoln Lewis, Phoebe Tonkin, Chris Pang, Ashleigh Cummings, Andy Ryan, Colin Friels, Don Halbert, Olivia Pigeot.
2012 – 103 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 22, 2012.
A hip, glossy, teen-targeted adaptation of the first in a popular seven-part series of Australian novels by John Marsden, "Tomorrow, When the War Began" ought to be receiving a wide U.S. release with, per the norm of such a production, millions poured into its publicity and advertising campaign. Instead, a year and a half following a disappointing run Down Under that didn't quite meet the studio's expectations, it is finally seeing the light of day Stateside in a tiny handful of theaters and On Demand. The film, an action-fantasy in the vein of John Hughes and 1984's "Red Dawn," is a little rocky and lacking much subtlety on its way to an ending that leaves room wide open for a sequel, yet it's also immensely likable. The cinematography by Ben Nott (2010's "Daybreakers") is slick and pretty, the soundtrack is full of memorable tracks (by artists such as The Temper Trap, Wolfmother, The Cruel Sea, and Bob Evans), and the cast is filled with fresh young faces who deserve bright acting futures. There's nothing subtle about the plotting and there's little that's deep about an invasion that doesn't dare point fingers at a specific enemy, but it gets the job done all the same.

In a bid to prove her independence, 17-year-old Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey) convinces her dad to lend her the land rover so that she and six buddies—BFF Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood), rebellious neighbor Homer (Deniz Akdeniz), Corrie's new boyfriend Kevin (Lincoln Lewis), Ellie's crush Lee (Chris pang), city girl Fi (Phoebe Tonkin), and devout Christian Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings)—can go on a camping trip in the dense, desolate, picturesque Australian bush. Thinking nothing of the military aircraft they spotted flying overhead on an earlier evening, they return home several days later to discover the full population of their town of Wirrawee has vanished and their pets have been killed. With many of their families held in a concentration camp built on the nearby fairgrounds, Ellie and her friends have two choices: run away, despite not knowing how widespread the takeover is, or fight for the freedom of their country and loved ones.

"Tomorrow, When the War Began" is the solid directorial debut of screenwriter Stuart Beattie (2008's "Australia"), the film winningly setting up its characters at the onset so that one feels as if he or she knows them by the time the lives they've known come cruelly crashing down around them. Take away the war of the title, and these teens, each one conceived fully enough that they stand apart, could easily be in a coming-of-age comedy climaxing at the prom. There will be no prom for these unfortunate souls, however, as they decide to fight against forces probably far greater than them. Despite the R rating, "Tomorrow, When the War Began" often feels as if it's holding back, afraid to go to the dark places that the aforementioned "Red Dawn" went to. Furthermore, the dialogue isn't always air-tight, weaving into melodramatic theatrics on occasion that spell out the movie's most overt themes of survival and growing up. Nevertheless, the picture does nothing if not grab one's attention, drawing the viewer into Ellie and her friends' predicament and ultimate battle for their lives. It's quite a crafty genre mash-up that deserves to find an audience.
© 2012 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman