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City of Ember

starring Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway and Bill Murray
written by Caroline Thompson & directed by Gil Kenan
Rated PG for mild peril and some thematic elements.
85%

Far beneath the surface of the earth lives a small remnant of human survivors, escapees from some long-forgotten devastation of the world above. When they went underground, the plan was to return to the sun-lit lands after 200 years. Unfortunately, something went terribly wrong. No one remembers the plan anymore, while the city, not meant to sustain life for so long, is slowly running out of food and power. However, teens Doon Harrow (Treadaway) and Lina Mayfleet (Ronan), facing a bleak and uncertain future, are about to discover a clue to a world whose existence no one has thought about in generations.

City of Ember plays like an adaptation of a young adult sci-fi novel, which is good, since that’s exactly what it is. The premise sounds like someone took the end of Dr. Strangelove as their jumping-off point, but the similarities end there. A couple of plucky youngsters living in a dystopian future rebel against a corrupt, authoritarian system and unravel a neatly-plotted mystery that changes everything. There are shades here of the likes of The Giver, Futuretrack 5, Uglies and the Shadow Children series, to name just a few. In short, this is a crowded subgenre in the world of books. In movies, however, it remains relatively unexplored. Dystopian films aimed at kids and teens are rather rare (in fact, I can’t think of any outside of Japanese anime).

This is one of the movie’s greatest strengths, and it gets a lot of mileage out of the Ember setting. As the movie begins, it is Assignment Day, when the graduating youths get randomly assigned jobs around the city. Lina becomes a messenger, darting rapidly from the greenhouses on the outskirts of town to the mayor’s office in the central square and everywhere in-between. Doon, meanwhile, labors away in the tunnels of the pipeworks, patching leaks that have been patched a dozen times before and dodging giant mutant moles. Both of them, along with nearly everyone else, are worried by the increasingly long blackouts that signal the failure of Ember’s enormous generator.

The design, half-steampunk, half-crumbling ruin, has a great lived-in feel to it and loads of personality. City of Ember unwinds at a reasonably brisk pace, dragging only rarely as the pieces of the puzzle fall into place and our heroes get closer to answering questions almost no one is asking. A few of the effects sequences during the climax are a bit much, and look rushed in terms of quality, but overall the movie shows admirable restraint.

The young stars (particularly Ronan) are sympathetic, intelligent, and well-played. They largely manage to steer clear of the Achilles heel of characters in these stories: lapsing into frustrating obtuseness whenever it suits the plot to stretch things out or add artificial tension. The adult support is strong and fantastic. Bill Murray is perfectly cast as the umpteenth mayor of Ember, a fat, complacent, seemingly-benign dictator who is not terribly bright. You can see the gears grinding in his head as he tries to piece new developments together, but he’s just not up to the challenge. And, in true Murray style, he is far too laid back to completely lose his cool, even when he’s upset.

The rest of the cast, to name just a few: Martin Landau is almost unrecognizable as the ancient pipeworker who shows Doon the ropes, when he can manage to stay awake. Mary Kay Place is Lina’s kindly next-door neighbor, a devout believer who blindly believes that “the builders” who originally created Ember will return to lead them to safety. Tim Robbins is Doon’s Rube Goldberg-like father, a designer of dangerous-looking gadgets of questionable usefulness (though, in retrospect, his character is criminally underdeveloped).

I also really felt that far more could have been done with the threat of darkness during the blackout scenes. Whenever the lights flicker and go out, a bright flare is quickly launched up over the city, briefly illuminating everything once more before it is extinguished, leaving darkness until the generator is restored. These brief descents into darkness are sometimes moments when plot developments take place, and sometimes simply emphasize the desperation of the characters.

There is a major missed opportunity here, though. The director chooses to light these scenes so that we can see what is going on, even though the scene ought to be pitch black. The result is a bit hokey, and so much more could have been accomplished, and more tension created, with a creative use of sound and the inclusion of moments when we actually can’t see what is happening, just as the characters can’t. Ah, well.

In closing, I should note that there is obviously more going on in this story than the average member of the target audience might pick up on. It is ably translated for the screen by Caroline Thompson, screenwriter of classic Tim Burton flicks like Edward Scissorhands and Nightmare Before Christmas, and, as one would expect from a dystopian work, there is a lot of thinly-disguised allegory lurking just beneath the surface. It is a movie about things like the foolishness of never questioning and the danger of blindly following tradition or authority, no matter what. There are all sorts of other interesting considerations, too, like how a human colony forced underground for hundreds of years might really look, and what life back on the surface would be like for them. These elements, while they may be worth teasing out in discussion later, are also pretty easy to ignore in favor of just having a good time. Whether that counts for or against City of Ember will be for you to decide.

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~ by Jared on October 10, 2008.

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