Author John Marsden’s Australian invasion novel Tomorrow, When the War Began has been gobbled up like corn chips and adored by teens and young adults since it hit the shelves in the early 90’s. The book generated record sales, six sequels, endless speculation about the nationality of the invaders (Marsden never named names) and now a slick big screen adaptation from Aussie writer/director Stuart Beattie, who has big budget bona fides as the writer of Michael Mann’s terrific one-night-from-hell LA thriller Collateral and a contributing scribe to Hollywood franchises such as the Pirates of the Caribbean series.

This marks Beattie’s first film as a director. There’s no doubt watching how his words have been shaped into showy multiplex movies has taught him some tricks of the trade over the years — particularly how to employ polished cinematography and maintain a cracking pace.

The story tracks a group of high school students from the small town of Wirrawee who go on a week-long camping trip to ‘Hell’ — not the place with flames, pitchforks and Stan Zemanek but a beautiful remote location that looks like something straight out of a shampoo commercial. Dozens of military planes fly over one night and when the young’uns return to town things have sure taken a turn for the worse: the dogs are dead, mum and dad are nowhere to be seen and the town is eerily silent. It’s been invaded by a foreign power, residents herded into a makeshift concentration camp. A couple of impromptu meeting later these (pimple free) pubescent peeps decide to grab some munitions and take the power back.

For the record: yes, we see the invaders, and they’re obviously Asian. But the question of the invading country is skirted in the film, as it was in the book. When the characters discuss flags and nationalities, one chimes in with “what difference does a flag make?”, which is nice way of avoiding the ethnicity elephant in the room.

There was never any mystery as to why the books were so successful. The story was written with Marsden’s unprepossessing style and mingled with elements akin to a high school student’s wet dream — the action-spangled p(l)ot of gold at the end of the elusive ‘learning can be fun’ rainbow. Beattie knew there was never an excuse to make a boring movie.

There was a clean-cut feel to Marsden’s writing, an uncluttered, middle-of-the-road style that feeds into the film — particularly in the dialogue — and probably always had to. Beattie’s handling is sassier and edgier than readers of the book will probably expect and he brings more than a hint of the risqué: a snippet of unexpected violence to illustrate in no uncertain terms that war is the stuff of nasty pasties; some spliff tokes from the stoner; a healthy amount of cleavage from the two pretty young female leads, etcetera. In other words, just enough to make young viewers feel as if they’ve seem something slightly irreverent when in fact Tomorrow, When the War Began is ultimately inoffensive entertainment, just like the books. But it’s fast paced, intelligently designed and will forge a strong connection with its target demographic.

The details: Tomorrow, When the War Began opens in cinemas nationally today.