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06 October 2010 @ 07:39 pm
Tomorrow When The War Began  
On Monday I went to see the Australian movie Tomorrow When The War Began. I have conflicted feelings about it, to say the least. I don't know how big a splash it has made or will make overseas, but here it's a Big Deal to a lot of Australians of my generation and younger. It's probably safe to say it was the first blockbuster Australian YA series, and it still holds its ground today as the most successful Australian YA series.


The first novel was first published in 1993, when I considered myself too cool to read teen lit. And so I missed the boat on this phenomenon. I did attempt it at some stage and remember finding the characters banal and the whole war thing unappealing at the time. Hey, I was in my teens, you transition through fads pretty quickly! And this one didn't hit me at the right time.

I read the novels later, in my late 20s, with the reluctance of someone who has spent years hearing people gush about them but had secretly pigeonholed them mentally as 'kind of low-brow and boring'. (I am such a snob sometimes!) However reading them as an adult I could see some of the appeal--it is incredibly refreshing as an Australian to read a narrative set in Australia that holds its own in any way in terms of narrative traction (aka the page-turner quality) and engaging characterisation. And these books are refreshingly Australian. However, it was impossible for me to turn off my critical adult brain about the handling of certain issues--specifically race, gender and teen sexuality. If these books had grabbed me at a younger age, I swear these things would have been incidental. I may have acknowledged them but I could still have been swept away by the story. However, as an adult they turned me off enough to throw me 'out' of the story emotionally.

Now there's a movie, indeed a movie franchise. And my feelings have shifted from 'meh, not for me' to 'waaaah, conflicted, I wish this DID work for me!'

Because the movie is good. Damn good, for Australian cinema.

Caitlin Stasey, who plays the lead character, Ellie, is extremely charismatic and handles some clunky dialogue (verbatim from the book--it's a very faithful adaptation out of respect for its hardcore Aussie following) amazingly well. She makes Ellie a comprehensible, indeed sympathetic, character to me. And there's a lot to like: tough Aussie country chick turned guerilla fighter? Hell, yeah! Watch this movie for her alone.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it centres on a group of teen friends in a country Australian town who go camping one weekend and return to find their country invaded and themselves in the middle of a war. The other characters are a little more stereotyped (especially in their introductions, they settle down after that) than in the book, but the two who translate best to the big screen are Homer, the Greek-Australian rebel, and Fifi, the prissy town chick who falls for him. Lee, who is Ellie's love interest, was a less successful translation to the big-screen for me, largely because the actor got lumped with the worst dialogue of all time in a couple of key scenes. No one could have pulled it off--Chris Pang did a damn good job trying (and he's pretty to look at so there's that).

Anyway, the other things going for the movie are: surprisingly good action sequences, a nicely selected soundtrack, good pacing, suspense and editing, some gentle/offbeat Australian absurdist humour thrown in at critical points (which may be lost and/or did sit right overseas but was appreciated back home), and some gorgeous animated credits at the end (ok, that's the vidder in me--most people wouldn't care about the credits, but damn they were good!).

Here's the fail. Brace yourselves. It's epic.

The premise of this entire series is racist and deep down it knows it. Who is Australia invaded by? In the novels the country (or countries) or nationality (nationalities) of the invaders is never named (bit weird, no?) but other countries (the US and New Zealand) come into play as allies. The invaders are described as lacking resources and having an 'overcrowded' homeland. They want to redress the balance of resources 'in the region'. Oh yeah? o.O As an adult, reading the books, the series SO CLEARLY draws on one of Australia's biggest collective anxieties: being invaded by Asians from the north. In boats even. For fuck's sake. It doesn't matter to me one whit that Marsden never named the country--it's implicitly clear to Australian readers that the enemy is Asian.

In the movie, they couldn't skirt around this forever--eventually they had to show the faces of the invading forces (who, by the way, round up Australian civilians into concentration camps), and sure enough: Asian. OK. Asia is close. If you were building a sci-fi premise in Australia, it would be entirely possible to project forward to a future in which there was conflict in the region over resources. What makes me queasy is not that suggestion so much as the way the author tries to avoid all mention of race--it reeks of inner embarrassment. When translated to the screen this becomes even more awkward.

In Marsden's favour on the matter of race is the fact that he includes a Greek Australian and a Chinese Australian in the core group, as sympathetic and very much Australian characters. But there is an awkwardness inherent in the text when it comes to Lee--evident in the scene where he speaks to Ellie about people 'labelling what they don't understand' (this scene is cringe-inducing). Textually the characters argue about who the invaders might be and conclude it 'doesn't matter'. In interviews that is Marsden's own line: that the story is about the way the characters behave, the impact of war on the characters, and not about racial conflict. Aha. Hmm. Forgive me but I'd find it both more interesting and more honest if the text had been brave enough to tackle those issues a little more directly. By at least, you know, admitting that the invaders had a different racial and cultural identity. I was glad that the movie referenced race at least once visually, through the device of a mural portraying the settlement of Australia. However, I still got continually flung out of the narrative by the 'omg, are we really showing this?!' aspects.

I am sure defenders of the series will point to things like Ellie identifying with the young soldier she kills. That's a powerful moment, true. But I find it less powerful when the racial difference between the two characters is unacknowledged.

Anyway, that aside, there is a lot to like in this movie. The books handle teen sexuality awkwardly in my opinion (though evidently thousands of teens would disagree with me!), but this wasn't so much in evidence in the movie. Where the movies made me eyeroll was more in the implausibly spectacular Australian bush (psst, where'd that mountain range come from?!) and the very Hollywood 'hero shots' at the end. However, I can forgive those attempts to glam things up for an international audience, as I can forgive Fifi stripping off into a red bikini (quite nicely and comedically handled actually). If those things help it pick up fans overseas I wish it well. I just wish the story didn't hinge on such a racially fraught premise. Because now? 15+ years later? I could totally get into a sci-fi/war story about teens (including a spunky girl hero) set in an Australian landscape.

Sigh.

Bugger.

This entry was originally posted at http://www.dreamwidth.org/12345.html. Comment here or there, as you will.
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brokenmnemonicbrokenmnemonic on October 6th, 2010 10:49 am (UTC)
This sounds like one of those series of books that could be good to read at a particular age, as a primer for being fed into other series. I know I still have books on my shelves that I keep because of how much I liked them when I first read them, even though I can recognise now that they've got some pretty fundamental flaws.

Is the film something where the dialogue improves if beer is applied to the viewing audience? Any idea as to how much similarity it bears to movies like 'Red Dawn'?
K, Bop or Boppy--take your pick!: Kara glowybop_radar on October 6th, 2010 10:54 am (UTC)
Yeah, that's right--it's one of those series that can definitely capture the imagination if you read it at the right time, even if it is flawed. I kind of wish I had?

the dialogue improves if beer is applied to the viewing audience
I think to say yes would give the wrong impression--the dialogue is not ALL bad. In fact, I'd say it's 90 per cent fine, certainly a lot better handled than I'd expected, and it's more a case of me flinching more than I usually would because it's an Australian movie, not an American one. I'd eyeroll at the same stuff in an American one but I wouldn't really notice that much. Compared to most blockbuster American flicks, the dialogue was good. :p

Haven't seen 'Red Dawn' (I know, I know!) so can't say.
ktnushanakt on October 6th, 2010 10:11 pm (UTC)
Having seen both Red Dawn and Tomorrow I can say there is a startling amount of resemblance - the invading enemy in Red Dawn I believe is some sort of Central or South American dictator, playing on the same racial tensions as Tomorrow except in the case of the US, the fear of invasion comes from the South. These films are, in a strange way, quite smart to tap into pre-existing fears in a society (although I found the marking of the invaders in Tomorrow as Asian as extremely awkward and cringe-worthy). But great to see a slick, well-produced Australian film with Aussie actors and contexts! (I say this as a Canadian living in Australia, of course.) :-)
K, Bop or Boppy--take your pick!: Lee smilebop_radar on October 6th, 2010 10:18 pm (UTC)
*g* Ohh, thanks for the fill-in details! I'm glad I'm not alone in my cringe and also the simultaneous appreciation for a well-made Australian film.
(Deleted comment)
K, Bop or Boppy--take your pick!: Aish facepalmbop_radar on October 6th, 2010 11:50 am (UTC)
Yup. That's it exactly. It makes us feel squirmy and uncomfortable and we'd rather say it's not 'the point'. Except sometimes it IS the point, or at least should be acknowledged as part of the picture.
fjmfjm on March 5th, 2011 04:02 pm (UTC)
Good post. I have just cited it (as I didn't have time to read the books again.)

Thank you.