Parochial paranoia dovetails with adolescent angst in the glossy sci-fi coming-of-ager “Tomorrow When the War Began.” Based on the first installment of John Marsden’s seven-book series with a robust teen following in Australia, pic reps an ambitious attempt to initiate a homegrown franchise, and has been rewarded with strong local box office. Strong production values and a generally sharp helming debut by Hollywood scribe Stuart Beattie (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Collateral”) may arouse interest in international markets, but some stilted thesping from the youthful cast will grate with targeted adolescent auds, suggesting brighter possibilities in ancillary.
Looking for adventure in the (fictional) rural town of Wirrawee, feisty Australian high schooler Ellie (Caitlin Stasey) enlists an eclectic group of adventurous friends to go camping in a remote canyon. Campers range from boisterous jock Homer (Deniz Akdeniz) to conservative pacifist Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings), and present a potpourri of budding postpubescent romances. Overnight, the chaste teens are awoken by the sinister buzz of an aerial invasion by armed forces from an unnamed Asian country. The next day, they return home to find communications cut and the populace imprisoned.
The teens’ realization that they are the town’s only free citizens draw out heretofore unrevealed characteristics. Ellie leads the pack with feats of fearless derring-do, including one well-edited sequence in which she drives a garbage truck across enemy lines. In contrast, survival stress reveals the cowardice behind the he-man pose of Kevin (Lincoln Lewis).
Tipped off by a radio broadcast, the protags set out to blow up a nearby bridge that’s of strategic importance to the invaders. Unfortunately, by the time the gang is ready for its mission, the film seems to have exhausted its energy; climax feels like a tired, foregone conclusion.
Female leads Stasey and Cummings are convincing, but most of their co-stars (drawn from a wider pool than that of most similar Oz productions) merely offer teen cliches. The prominent casting of Asian-Australian actor Chris Pang as Ellie’s crush, the wisest and least machismo-driven of the male teens, helps the film dodge the racially inflammatory tag suggested by its Asian baddies (who speak in a scrambled and artificial tongue). A near-superfluous cameo by local stalwart Colin Friels as a drug-savvy dentist reps the only significant adult role.
Helming is efficient and effective, and Beattie makes the most of a roughly $27 million budget. Ben Nott’s lensing, expertly evoking the look of many comicbooks, will appeal to target auds; Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek’s score is overused, however, while the decision to alternate original music with local rock tunes results in an aural muddle.
Pic is clearly set up for a sequel (which has yet to enter production); the producers have stated they intend to film the first three books in Marsden’s series as a trilogy, while subsequent novels will be adapted for the tube.