City of Ember (2008)

15 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I begin, let me state that while I like this film adaptation of Jeanne DuPrau’s science-fiction fantasy novel “The City of Ember,” I can’t help but wonder how more effective it would be if the prologue was omitted from the final product. Let me explain—it’s not that we don’t need somewhat of an explanation for some of the elements given to the film (even though some elements, we have to figure out for ourselves—I’ll get to one specific example later); it’s that there could have been a great surprise twist that would have made sense and, more importantly for a sci-fi film, would have been intriguing.

As “City of Ember” opens, we’re given a prologue (with the voice of Tim Robbins narrating the setup) that lets us know right away that the action is going to take place in an underground city that was built to protect the survivors of a catastrophe that has gotten the best of Earth, so that new generations will live on. A box is given to the first Mayor of the City of Ember—inside the box are rules and instructions that will help the people of Ember to come back to the world, 200 years later. (A timer is set on the box to be opened in a specific 200 years—by the way, you ever wonder if that box’s batteries run out after a couple weeks or something? But I digress.) As time passed, the box was unfortunately abandoned and forgotten until finally, on its 200th year, it opens.

Do we really need to know right away that Ember is an underground city? Wouldn’t it have been a great twist if it were revealed to us, while being revealed to the film’s heroes, that Ember was underground the whole time? With this prologue, we’re now ahead of the protagonists instead of wondering along with them what else is out there among this “post-apocalyptic” world. It would have been more interesting to try and figure out where Ember was, but it’s set up early on that it’s underground.

Aside from that missed opportunity, “City of Ember” is a nicely-done sci-fi family adventure film with a unique visual look, an interesting setting, a cast of characters we can root for, and a mystery that keeps you invested. And no, that mystery isn’t where Ember is—it’s how to escape from it.

The box with instructions is found by two Ember children—teenagers Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway)—who ultimately use the written guides to find an exit. And just in time, too—the city’s generator that provides the city’s light and air is broken, leading to frequent malfunctions for Ember. Not only that, but the food storerooms are running empty and the water supply is low. Lina and Doon follow complicated, enigmatic clues that lead closer and closer to a safeguarded path to a place outside of Ember. But while on this journey, they come across a treasonous plan of Ember’s corrupt mayor Cole (Bill Murray), meaning they must work fast in order to ultimately figure everything out.

The setting of Ember is fun to look at, with one of the most fascinating movie sets I’ve ever seen. It reminded me of a George Orwell/Terry Gilliam type of city, with its claustrophobic setting, its color palette, which mostly consists of browns and golds, and even somewhat-retro technology without the updated present-day luxuries we’re used to. There are no computers in this world, which is kind of odd, but there are messengers running from place to place to deliver a new message to somebody from a customer. Everything is much more mechanical, with all sorts of gears and motors. There’s a fitting metaphor for how life has drained long since our modern technologies somewhere in here, and I think that’s what makes it all the more intriguing.

The last third of the film shows the two kids on their journey to find an exit from Ember. This leads them to a secret passage that leads to a couple of waterwheels and an old control room, where it all seems like a Rube Goldberg invention. Again, we have more visual effects to admire and the sets are very impressive. This city of Ember is a very inventive vision and has just what a sci-fi film such as this needed.

Oh. Yeah. I should mention the gigantic mole-like creature that is loose in the pipes down below. It only has a couple of scenes on-screen, but its presence is never explained in the slightest. Why is there a giant mole in this world? Did it have something to do with the end of the world? If it was due to radiation that Ember was created, was this a side effect? There’s also a cat-sized moth that Doon comes across and helps after it’s broken its wing. It seems to fly up to the surface; that’s a clever way of establishing some sort of radioactive-related theory. But still, it’s kind of a confused way of letting us take it seriously when a random giant mole is scattering around the city.

By the way, here’s something odd—the novel doesn’t even mention the giant mole or moth at all.

There are some problems I have with “City of Ember.” One is a few scenes go on a little longer than they should and some parts feel like filler to fill in the hour-and-a-half running time. Another is that the CGI ranges from passable to…in the case of the moth in particular, not very good. And the dialogue could have used a little work, particularly from Doon’s mentor, vague old Sul (Martin Landau, cashing a nice paycheck), and his father (Tim Robbins) who mostly speaks through trailer-type dialogue. And then unfortunately, there’s Bill Murray. As big a fan I am about Bill Murray, I really don’t believe his performance here. Murray just seems to be phoning it in and I couldn’t buy him for a moment.

But “City of Ember” has more things for me to appreciate that I enjoy watching the film and recommend it. The two young leads are appealing; the setting is unbelievable and very imaginative; there are clever twists and turns to the story here and there; the adventures are fun; and what’s probably most refreshing is that unlike most post-apocalyptic stories, this one is more centered on hope rather than misery. And that’s what made the ending of the film all the more satisfactory (even if it is ambiguous).

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