The movie begins with a video transmission from our lead character, the spiky high school student Ellie (Caitlin Stasey), which lingers just long enough for you to think, "Oh lord is this going to be another found footage movie?" Thankfully, it's not. And quickly we realize that it was a framing device, and that most of the movie will take place in flashback (hence the movie's grammatically wonky title). Despite the eeriness of the brief video prologue, the movie stars, in earnest, with a charmingly John Hughes-ian set-up: a group of characters from a small rural town (the fictional Wirrawee) want to get together and go away for a weekend in the outback. Quickly, the pleasingly multi-culti group is assembled – Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood), Ellie's best friend; Kevin (Lincoln Lewis), Corrie's boyfriend; Homer (Deniz Akdeniz), the local bad boy; Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin), a prissy townie; Lee (Chris Pang), Ellie's romantic interest; and Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings), a good girl and son of the local preacher. The kids are introduced and assembled in a snappily edited montage that suggests more characterization than is actually provided, but it still works well enough as a kind of cinematic shorthand, partly because the move trades on such well-treaded teen movie archetypes. They set off for an area of brush called, of course, Hell.
Well, when they get back to town, they understand that something is very much amiss. They each visit their respective homes, in a kind of reverse/unraveling of the earlier introductory sequence – no one is home and Ellie's dog has been left outside to die. (Dead animals are a touchstone of Australian genre cinema and it's nice to see the legacy upheld here). Eventually the group heads into town, where they see most of the citizens rounded up and forced into internment camps, guarded by heavily armed paramilitary officials of vaguely Asian origin. They watch as one townsperson steps out of line… and gets executed. It's a shocking moment (there's a jolt of red mist that accompanies the execution) and it raises the stakes appropriately.
"Tomorrow, When the War Began" was written and directed by Stuart Beattie, from a best-selling novel by John Marsden. Beattie is a veteran writer of big budget studio junk like the original "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Australia" and "G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra," but he was also responsible for Michael Mann's moody thriller "Collateral," and thankfully there's more of the latter in "Tomorrow, When the War Began" than any of his more blockbuster fare. There are a number of tightly knotted suspense pieces in "Tomorrow, When the War Began," in particular a breathless moment where the group is hiding from a helicopter, and the climactic act of resistance, where our protagonists plot to blow up a crucial bridge.
All that said, "Tomorrow, When the War Began" is a satisfying slice of young adult cinema, more engaging and enigmatic than the first three "Twilight" movies and able to produce an air of uniqueness in an overtly familiar, sci-fi-ish scenario. It would probably seem a lot less surprising (and, yes, there are a few genuinely shocking and violent moments) if the movie were set anywhere but Australia. It's a country crawling with things that want to bite and sting and shoot poison at you. Add in an invading army and things get even wilder and more unhinged. "Tomorrow, When the War Began" isn't groundbreaking, but it is fast-paced and genuinely entertaining, and its inherently Australian attitude gives it some much-needed edge. Vegemite sandwich not included. [B]