There's a promising idea at the heart of Tomorrow, When the War Began, and as far-fetched as the film's premise may be, there's no reason why it couldn't have resulted in a rousing adventure for teenage audiences. Instead, it's a desperately feeble affair, which never for a moment makes us care about its characters or believe in its story. The film focuses on a group of Australian teens who, having spent of a few days cut off from the world on a camping trip, discover that their hometown (and, we are led to speculate, the rest of Australia) has been invaded by foreign armed forces. As the only Australians who aren't languishing in prison camps, it's up to them to fight back, which is a narrative hook that could have been a lot of fun to play with.
Tomorrow, When the War Began feels so vague and sketched-in, though. We never get a sense of why Australia has been invaded or even where these troops have come from, and while it might be argued that we're only supposed to know what the teens know about this situation, the refusal to specify the invading nation feels more like a lack of balls on the part of panicky filmmakers. All we know is that they're Asians (ooh, scary!) and that they are utterly hopeless when faced with a bunch of teens, spraying bullets in all directions without ever hitting the target. On more than one occasion, a couple of the young heroes find themselves cornered, and escape by simply running away, with director Stuart Beattie cutting to them running down an empty street, having presumably lost their clueless pursuers. With no genuine threat in the movie there is no tension, and none of the film's set-pieces (except, perhaps, for an entertainingly silly garbage truck chase scene) manage to generate any real excitement. More often than not, the film generates unintentional laughter, with the devoutly Christian character's transformation into killing machine being a particularly comical moment.
The film looks good – particularly the explosions, which Beattie certainly knows how to film – but there's nothing going on under that glossy surface, a description that can also be applied to the film's cast. Caitlin Stasey is a limited (if disarmingly attractive) actress who tries hard in the lead role of Ellie, but the characters have no interesting dimensions – there's the blonde bimbo, the cowardly jock, the rebel, the awkward Asian (this really isn't a very good film for Asians). These characters are barely strong enough to carry a single film, and yet Beattie spends the movie's final minutes laboriously setting up a sequel, as Tomorrow, When the War Began is an adaptation of the first in a series of novels that has been enormously successful in Australia. Did the book have more detail, more coherence and more depth than this screen version? We can only hope so, and perhaps the film suggests as much with a scene in which Ellie finds her friend Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood) reading My Brilliant Career and is told that it's "better than the movie." "Yeah," Ellie replies, "Books usually are."