One peculiar byproduct of American cultural relativism is the impulse to fetishize foreign imports on the grounds that they’re somehow inherently different, and therefore more interesting, than the majority of what’s produced domestically. Insofar as it helps shift attention away from Hollywood and toward smaller, less privileged cultural voices, this is an impulse that can be as appealing as it is useful, even though it’s predicated on underscoring difference rather than attempting to efface it. It manifests itself in all kinds of bizarre—and often disconcerting—ways, from how subtitled releases are marketed to American audiences to how Western critics tend to particularize international cinemas. The effect is a bit like designating a foreign section in an American video store: Though it’s fortunate that foreign films are made available and prominently displayed, it’s unfortunate that they even need to be ghettoized in that manner, as if they couldn’t unknowingly stand aside a Hollywood release.
I mention this because Tomorrow, When the War Began, Stuart Beattie’s adaptation of John Marsden’s immensely popular teen-fiction franchise, is an authentically Australian production on paper, but a thoroughly Hollywood blockbuster at heart. Tomorrow works so hard to affect the look and feel of a typical Hollywood action film that it even manages to replicate the utter mediocrity of any given real one; I suspect the highest compliment I could pay its producers would be to suggest that, regional accents and insubstantial stateside distribution notwithstanding, the film is virtually indistinguishable from any of its forgettable American counterparts.
Tomorrow, like the novels on which it’s based, relates a familiar high-concept premise: A band of crudely sketched teen caricatures must defend their home against the vaguely defined enemy army invading it, quickly learning to kill and coming of age in the process. If this plays out less like an Australian Red Dawn than you’d expect, it’s largely because the follow through lacks that film’s ideological edge—though it retains its xenophobia, compounded by casual racism.
How much time and effort a film puts into establishing its principal characters is usually a good indication of how much we ought to care about what happens to them, and in the case of Tomorrow the answer is distressingly little. Our seven plucky leads are handily defined by a single conspicuous characteristic, ranging from the predictable (the farmer’s daughter, the charismatic rebel) to the alarmingly racist (the Chinese piano prodigy, whose introduction—and I swear I’m not making this up—involves a language-barrier gag with his parents, who own a Chinese restaurant). It’s worth noting that the film, which is tasked with juggling seven separate leads convincingly, is relying here on the same brand of convenient expository shorthand put to use by just about every summer blockbuster ever, but these teens seem even more egregiously one-dimensional than most. It’s one thing to defer to archetypes, but Tomorrow is so full of stock types and clichés it makes The Breakfast Club look like Nashville.
It’s a sad irony that a film so intent on adopting Hollywood conventions should find it so difficult to find an audience—or even, until nearly two years after its release, distribution of any kind—in the U.S, where it so clearly belongs. But the industry is designed to work against outside contributions of that kind; though there are exceptions, in general a Hollywood film from any other country won’t find success on the same scale. Like 2003’s utterly forgettable Ryan Reynolds action vehicle Foolproof, Canada’s similarly failed attempt to produce a big-budget blockbuster of its own, one wonders why those involved felt the need to bother. Tomorrow, after all, aspires to a pretty dismal artistic standard, making its primary motive financial gain—another goal lifted from Hollywood. And the problem with financial motivation is that failure there means failure in all respects, and so all Tomorrow has to show for itself, in the end, are clichés and bills.