Australian Dawn

Sometimes the first version of a story is not the best.  In 1984, John Milius directed and co-wrote (with Kevin Reynolds) Red Dawn, about an invasion of the US by Soviet and Cuban troops.  By focusing on a small group of resistance fighters, it ignored the logistics problem of how such an attack could have been launched from Mexico without anyone noticing.  (Anyone who’s ever played Risk knows you would have to mass huge forces for such an invasion.)  Red Dawn made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the most violent movie ever made, with 2.2 violent acts per minute, and was the first movie released with a PG-13 rating.  The studio insisted on adding a feel-good Cliff Notes ending to wrap up the story, but it was awkward and contrived.  However, in the last days of the Cold War, the film was a popular success.   Last year MGM released a remake, but it tanked at the box office.

However, in 1995, Australian author John Marsden took the base concept and transferred it to Australia for the award-winning “Tomorrow” series of seven YA novels.  (He followed it up with a three-book arc looking at the psychological fallout of the war on the book’s main character.)   The concept was more realistic in Australia; during World War II the Japanese bombarded Northern Australia and threatened to invade until the Allies stopped them at New Guinea.  The movie version of the first book, Tomorrow, When The War Began, was released in 2010.

Teenagers Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey) and her best friend Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood) make plans for a pre-college camping trip into the mountainous backwoods area outside their home town of Wirrawee, near the port of Cobbler’s Bay.  Corrie is hoping the trip will give her time with her boyfriend Kevin (Lincoln Lewis), but the girls’ parents insist on a larger party before they let them go.  In the end there are seven who make the trip, including: Homer Yannos (Deniz Akdeniz), Ellie’s neighbor who’s the bad boy in town; Fiona Maxwell (Phoebe Tonkin), a beauty whose mother has given her self-esteem issues; Lee Takkam (Chris Pang), a studious pianist who works in his family’s restaurant; and Robyn Mathers (Ashleigh Cummings), the daughter of a preacher.

The seven set out on their adventure with an air of carefree delight, heading to an isolated area known locally as Hell.  This being Australia, they do have a run-in with a deadly snake that almost bites Ellie, but she’s saved by Lee.  On the night before they head home, Ellie is awakened by the sound of a large number of planes flying overhead, but she goes back to sleep without thinking much about it.

They return to Ellie’s house outside Wirrawee, only to find her family gone and her dog dead in the driveway.  They go on to Homer’s and Corrie’s homes and find the families there have also disappeared.  When night comes, they sneak into town.  Ellie, Corrie and Kevin find everyone in the town and the surrounding area have been placed in a concentration camp at the town’s fairgrounds, guarded by foreign troops.  As they watch, a townsperson is summarily executed by a soldier.

Stuart Beatie both directed the film as well as adapted the screenplay.  Beatie has worked on the scripts for all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and he wrote the excellent Michael Mann thriller Collateral.  (Trivia: he also attended the same Australian high school as Hugh Jackman and Hugo Weaving.)  While the movie is, if anything, more intense than Red Dawn, Beatie blends in humor with the story.  He carefully delineates each of the main character, and keeps them realistic throughout the movie.  They don’t go to bed as Ferris Bueller and wake up as Rambo.  Their morphing into resistance fighters is the story of the movie, rather than being casually accepted early in the Milius’s movie.  The invaders are never identified in the film, which is more effective than tying them to a certain group.

Caitlin Stasey is fascinating to watch as Ellie, who becomes the de facto leader of the group.  Even with all she has to do to keep the group safe and eventually take the fight back to the invaders, she must also deal with her awakening feelings for Lee.  When she kills soldiers pursuing her, Kevin and Corrie through the town, it carries an emotional price.  She’s not going to dismiss it with a casual Hollywood “Yippee ki yay, @*&!#.”

Tomorrow has been playing on Showtime, and can be rented or purchased on Amazon.  A sequel has been announced, based on the second book in the series, “In the Dead of Night.”  Beatie will again helm the picture, with the same cast, but it’s still in preproduction.  Hopefully it will come along soon.

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