Sunday, August 3, 2014

"Tomorrow, When the War Began" (2010)

Starring Caitlin Stasey, Rachel Hurd-Wood and Deniz Akdeniz
Written and directed by Stuart Beattie
Rated R - Violence, language
Running Time: 104 Minutes

Ellie (Caitlin Stasey), Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood), her boyfriend Kevin (Lincoln Lewis), Ellie's neighbor Homer (Deniz Akdeniz), Fiona (Phoebe Tonki) and their friends Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings) and Lee (Chris Pang), head off into the woods for a weekend camping trip. Out of cellular range and hidden miles from any road, they spend several bliss-filled days out in the Australian wilderness before returning home to make a shocking discovery: their country has been invaded, and their town captured by enemy forces.

Moving from home to home to keep from being spotted by the enemy, the group struggles to come up with a plan for their next move. They split into teams and head into town to gather information. Ellie, Corrie and Kevin discover the townspeople have been rounded up in the center of town where a local festival was to take place. When they return in the morning, they learn that Lee has been shot and is stuck in town.

Taking charge, Ellie plans a daring rescue. The teens realize now that their vacation is over... it's time to go to war.

I added "Tomorrow, When the War Began" to my Netflix list quite some time ago and then continued to pass over it in the list every time I scrolled through looking for something to watch.

I should have watched it sooner.

Let's talk about the elephant in the room: Yeah, it's pretty much just an Aussie version of "Red Dawn." But you know what, that's not a bad thing. In fact, despite its budgetary limitations and obvious sequel-setup ending, it's actually a better film than the "Red Dawn" remake.

It lacks the grotesque evolution of the teens into hardened killers as the original "Red Dawn," but it does a better job developing its characters than the remake, finding a nice balance between the two. Sure, it's definitely a bit more "young-adult" than "Red Dawn," a rather mature film that happened to be about teenagers. This film feels more like the pilot for a CW version of "Red Dawn," but that's alright.

With the comparisons over, let's talk about what "Tomorrow" does for itself. Firstly, putting Ellie in charge is a welcome change. The script subverts some of the expectations from its character archetypes - Kevin the jock is soon shown to be a coward rather than a take-charge leader, while Ellie ends up running the show. While her performance is no great award-winner, Caitlin Stasey gets the job done.

The cast is somewhat unremarkable. They're all your basic pretty actors, and while none of them are bad they're not great, either. They all have decent enough chemistry as a group, as well, and the direction by Stuart Beattie and editing help make the early scenes of the group bonding on their camping trip work a bit better.

The script falls into some more soap opera antics with its characters that feel like distractions, but it never gets too bad. It's one of the aspects of the film that occasionally makes it seem so much like a TV show rather than a movie, on top of some of the obvious budget limitations.

The action sequences fare better, though they're also limited by budget. We rarely see more than a handful of enemy soldiers at a time. Some green screen effects are less than stellar, especially at night. A nighttime truck chase through town is the film's most impressive sequence. A scene with the kids trying to hide from a helicopter's spotlight is another highlight, but the film's climax comes up a little short despite some great miniature work and pyrotechnics.

While it mostly feels like a young-adult version of "Red Dawn," the film version of "Tomorrow, When the War Began" (based on a series of novels) is a solid way to spend two hours on Netflix. It's not the greatest or tautest thriller, but it's a fair shade better than the "Red Dawn" remake. It's also too bad the film wasn't successful enough to spawn any sequels.

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