ActionFest '11: TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN

Tired of waiting for either MGM's bankruptcy or the decision to change the Chinese villains to North Koreans in the beleaguered Red Dawn remake?  Australia has your solution in the form of Tomorrow,  When The War Began.  A group of teenagers take a weekend camping trip into the bush, and when they come out, Australia has been seized by an unidentified Asian country.   You know it is serious when the family dog is the first on-screen corpse.  With their town of Wirrawee, all set for the summer fair with beauty queen contest and ferris wheel, is converted to POW camp, with the parents and townsfolk rounded up and put in cages.  Thus the group makes the trial-by-fire transition from care-free children to hardened guerilla soldiers.  

Based on a very popular set of Aussie books and adapted for the screen and directed by Stuart Beattie, a screenwriter  who has a list of high profile Hollywood screenplays Collateral, The Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise, Australia, and G.I. Joe making his directorial debut.  Beattie should look back at the talented directors, such as Gore Verbinski and Michael Mann that manage to extract much of the exposition out of the story and focus on the visuals, because here, there is not a scene that isn't overwritten or over-baked enough to elicit guffaws, pushing Tomorrow, When the War began almost into Twilight territory of undiscriminating teens only.  Some examples of Beattie's over doing it:  When our heroine, Ellie, a can-do farm girl, has a heart-to-heart with her bff, she not only does it in their childhood tree house (they are planning to go back to their isolated camping spot called Hell to hole up) but she looks at not one, but two different toys during the conversation.  The young religious girl working herself up to shed some blood in the name of the resistance does so with a looming, forlorn looking swing-set in the foreground, or the group sits around at camp like The Breakfast Club, they are all 'types' at this point, anyway, discussing their motivation to run away or defend their country smacks of unadvised overkill rather than revealing drama.   I suppose that two of the three key couples happen to be interracial pairings (Vietnamese/Caucasian and Greek/Caucasian) reflects the large number of cultures integrating into Australia these days, but the film never feels as believable or grounded as the opening pre-war chapter.   A high energy cameo from Judy Davis' hubby, Colin Friels threatens to jump-start the picture, but he quickly moves on, leaving things in the hands of our young and pretty collection.  They pick up a stoner character at one point, but that just makes things worse.

Episodic in the extreme, there are small set pieces involving dune buggies and machine guns, a fighter-jet air striking a farm, a plan to blow up a strategic bridge with a tanker truck and Australian Grade "A" beef, and a bikinis and footy match in the summer sun.  With its very open ending (A sequel is already in pre-production) the film feels more like a cable-network TV pilot than a $25M dollar film production, yet it is not without thrills if you can get past the screenplay.  A 'framing' device involving a video log from Ellie, which pops up unmotivated (and you guessed it, overdone) as a voice over at times, takes any tension that the story is going to kill an unexpected character or stray from the predictable in-group squabbles.  This might be fine for its fan base, but a little too pandering for my tastes.  Tomorrow, When the War Began, never finds its tone, stuck between psuedo-serious character drama and action and 'splotion cheese, but never the patriotic vintage of John Milius' deers-blood drinking, America The Beautiful singing progenitor.  Wolverines?  More like Mouseketeers, come to think of it, exactly what I expect from the Red Dawn remake if it ever gets released, so perhaps it is best to consider Tomorrow, When the War Began something of a place holder.  Maybe Beattie and company will overcome the flaws in future installments.  I have my doubts.
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