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Tomorrow, When the War Began

dir: Stuart Beattie
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An Aussie version of Red Dawn? Sign me up right now! I'd watch the shit out of such a movie. And I did, I guess...

Red Dawn, that brilliantly stupid 80s flick about American teenagers leading a guerrilla war against their Communist oppressors, deserves to be a template worth replicating. Of course, I’ve heard that they’re making a new Red Dawn, which I think is completely redundant now, with this flick having been made.

Of course, though cheesier than a three-cheese pizza, this flick doesn’t have a scene where Harry Dean Stanton yells with a demented gleam in his eye: “AVENGE ME, BOYS, AVENGE ME!”

And for that alone there need to be multiple competing versions of this meme out there.

I don’t personally know John Marsden, but I feel like he’s one of Australia’s living treasures, and that his efforts in the fields of writing aimed at ‘young adults’ and in education make him someone worthy of awards, showers of wealth and the attentions of hot people with skills to pay bills. I remember that I read some of his books back in the day, including this one, but I’d be lying if I said I actually remembered this book from when I was twelve. I vaguely remember it, and remember how shocking the idea was, and how confronting the idea of Australian teenagers killing to survive was, but little more than that.

There are two contradictory ideas that the flick has to balance in order to work, and it does fairly well with both of them. The first is one that’s contradictory all on its own, which is that these are ‘kids’ thrust unwillingly into the role of soldiers or insurgents, depending on how you look at it, who have to stand up and put away childish things to become freedom fighters.

The second idea is that these clueless but resourceful kids could ever be a threat to an army, and that’s far less convincing, unless you depict the action in a cartoonish and overamped manner, which the flick delivers in spades. So even if we can’t believe it, we’re supposed to be able to relate to it in our own local context.

It’s a somewhat precious idea when you consider that there are kid soldiers in other countries, especially certain African countries, that are hopped up on goofballs and running around raping and killing under orders before they’ve even hit puberty. Also, actual soldiers in actual Western armies are often eighteen anyway. They’re the ones who expect and demand to die on the front lines, being the tattooed cannon fodder by definition that they are.

But this is Australia, dude, where our pampered and coddled children know not of these things except for news stories they ignore because no-one reads the papers anymore. In Australia, as the main character articulates, we operate under the fantasy that ‘this’ could never happen here, ‘this’ being an invasion by the Chinese military in all its glory, and that a group of kids would never need to step up to the plate like this.

A bunch of ‘normal’ kids who pretty much start off as stereotypes and eventually grow into more determined versions of those stereotypes, go camping at a completely fortuitous time (for them) and isolated place. Ellie (Caitlin Stasey) is the natural leader, who is sufficiently girly but also has oodles of survival skills. Her best friend Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is also along for the ride, but she’s suffering from that condition where she’s just had sex with a boy for the first time, and her IQ has temporarily dropped by 40 or so points.

The boy in question, Kevin (Lincoln Lewis), is just along in order to disappoint us all. Ellie’s friend from childhood, a Greek blue collar type called Homer (Deniz Akdeniz), is the aggressive but harmless bad boy of the group. They also bring along Christian fundamentalist girl Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings), rich girl from town Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin) and token Asian guy Lee (Chris Pang). And they’ll eventually be joined by a stoner character (Andy Ryan) who delivers an amusing and excruciatingly long monologue that’s his only contribution to the movie.

These stereotypes notice, as they camp in virtual isolation, a lot of jets and other planes flying over, and when they get back to the fictional country town where they live, called Wirawee or Wa Wa Nee or Wa Wa Wee Wa, nothing is as it should be. In fact, everything is very, very wrong.

Their town, close as it is to a deep water bay and port, has apparently been one of the major launching points of an invasion by an unnamed foreign power. Yeah, I know, they’re explicitly never identified in the movie or books, but they’re clearly Chinese (even if the language the soldiers speak is deliberately obscured). So everyone in the town, including all the family and friends of the protagonists, has been either killed or rounded up and incarcerated in concentration camps.

Sure, before and after this I’m going to refer to how cheesy and hacky the flick is, but the image of guard towers and concentration camps on Australian soil is deeply chilling to me. There’s absolutely no fucking doubt that director Stuart Beattie, as opposed to Marsden, saw and chose to replicate whole swaths of Red Dawn, but I guess the image of those people behind the wire was far more affecting this time around, because, I guess, this time it’s personal.

In very short order, the kids go mostly from callow youths to freedom fighters at the drop of a hat, and the ridiculous action sequences they are caught up in are almost calculated to generate more laughs than thrills. There’s an action sequence where our heroine Ellie is trying to rescue one of their number who’s been wounded, and she uses a garbage truck, as she is pursued by soldiers in dune buggies with mounted machineguns. It’s an action sequence that seems like less it was written and directed for the delectation of a chirpy fifteen-year old boy, and more so like it was written and directed by a fifteen-year-old boy.

But it doesn’t damage the flick too much, because it really does capture a kind of immature and anarchic energy, in line with what it would be like if a bunch of bright but inexperienced kids launched a terror campaign on some soldiers who are fearsome more for their intentions and numbers rather than their soldiering skills.

When Ellie is first forced to kill, we get that moment of voiceover, where she tells us what she felt like when she first killed to survive. As it’s happening in front of our eyes. She watches the wounded face of her victim, as she slips into death, and, by some strange coincidence, the soldier is a girl too, who looks to be around Ellie’s age. Hmm, I guess it’s supposed to be something of a mindfuck for her, but it seems pretty lazy storytelling to me.

They actually do debate, at a certain point, the ethics of what they’re planning on doing. I wouldn’t argue that’s it’s a Socratic conversation exactly, but it does cover most of the ideas that kids would have in that situation, I guess. Fundamentalist chick Robyn, who acts very wispy and watery, swears that she could never bring herself to commit an act of violence on another human being, regardless of who they are, because her religious beliefs forbid the taking of a life. I wonder if the flick will contrive a situation where she has to man up and take some suckers out?

Also, Corrie’s wimpy boyfriend Kevin is shown to be a complete and utter coward towards the beginning of the conflict. He even has a classic moment where he states for no-one else’s benefit “What good is a flag anyway?” as if to imply that he’ll be just as happy to live underneath the jackboot of their new Chinese overlords with a new, possibly redder flag flying overhead, as long as they let him live. I wonder if the flick contrives a moment where it looks like he’s chickened out yet again, only to triumph over his cowardice if only for a moment?

All these contrivances don’t ultimately hurt the flick too much. The best contrivance is isolating the story to just what’s happening to our characters, and not trying to depict the conflict Australia-wide. All the same, there are too many characters to focus on, which means that most of them have little to do except for bulking up the numbers, but at least it gives us somewhere to go down the track when the characters gain personalities and are given something more meaningful to do (assuming the other books are made into flicks as well). There seems to be something of a ra-ra message to it all, an argument against pacifism, and a gleefulness at having kids act all grown up by having them shoot motherfuckers dead and blow shit up that’s positively American in its realisation.

And that’s all well and good. I didn’t even mention the moment where a character outruns a fireball, which is an image and a concept so stupid that I thought it’d been retired a fair time ago except when used by Stallone, who gets a lifetime pass. The problem ultimately is that the intelligence and the emotional subtlety John Marsden has invested in these books, and the care with which he represents his teen characters, is mostly absent from this fairly dumbed down flick. I can forgive it though, just barely, because depicting these kids as kids would be too difficult, apparently.

Much easier to have people in their twenties doing it. The flick also manages to avoid anything even remotely close to a downbeat ending (unlike Red Dawn), and ends on a celebratory note, even as some characters appear to be lost along the way. And some of the dumb stuff they do, like switching off a radio before an attack in order to gossip about boys, is almost so stupid yet believable (if the characters were dumb, boy crazy girls) that I almost feel obligated to smile at it.

What we’re left with is an action flick where kids, motivated by revenge and a desire to liberate their country from foreign invaders, band together to wreak havoc upon their enemy in order to be able to look each other in the eye without dying of shame. It’s far more noble and enjoyable when the protagonists are Australian rather than Afghani, I guess, and so, to prevent more Cronulla riots and such, I heartily endorse it and recommend it to anyone trying to convince their kids to join the Army: It’s not a career, it’s an adventure.

6 times this probably means the war will end before it started out of 10

(Ellie sees her friend Corrie reading My Brilliant Career)
"Good book?"
- "Better than the movie."
"Yeah, books usually are." – apart from the clear sucking of John Marsden's dick, at least she wasn’t reading a copy of Tomorrow, When the War BeganTomorrow, When the War Began.