One of the most gorgeous-looking films I’ve seen this year is City of Ember, the Fox/Walden adaptation of Jeanne Duprau’s young-adult fantasy novel about a post-apocalyptic underground city. Although the story is aimed at younger audiences, it’s still enjoyable for grown-ups. The movie should be viewed on as large a screen as you can find, giving you the sense that you’re this close to the fascinating and decaying city where the story is set.
The movie’s prologue lays out the premise clearly. In the future, something goes haywire that causes the end of the world, but fortunately top U.S. scientists have created an underground city to keep a portion of mankind safe. The inhabitants will not be told about the Earth’s past, so they won’t be traumatized and will assume that their underground city is the only civilization. A box with instructions for returning to the Earth’s surface will open in 200 years, which should be time enough for the Earth to be inhabitable again. However, over the course of time the box becomes lost, and after more than two centuries have passed, the city is starting to run out of resources and is falling apart.
As the city declines, two children in Ember, Lina Mayfleet (Saorise Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) have both come of age and start working for the city — Lina as a messenger, and Doon in the pipeworks. Doon wanted to be an electrician and is dying to tinker with the city’s enormous generator, so it will stop its increasingly long and frequent blackouts. The mayor of Ember (Bill Murray) organizes a task force but otherwise seems to do little. Lina and Doon’s older acquaintances also seem uninterested, telling the young people not to concern themselves with larger matters. But they are determined to find out what’s wrong with their city, which to their mind is the only place where humans live, and fix whatever they can.
The movie reminded me a little of Dark City (the theatrical version, not the director’s cut), but less creepy and more appropriate for kids. Both movies are set in an artificial city, created by beings other than those who dwell in it, for purposes the residents do not yet understand. In addition, both films open with the story behind the city’s creation, which is spelled out for us in detail, and the suspense is not in our discoveries but in those of the characters. I would have preferred the increased suspense in keeping the city’s origins a mystery from us, but the straightforward telling gives the movie more of a fairytale quality and makes it more accessible to younger viewers.
Caroline Thompson’s script gives us strong main characters and entertaining supporting characters, but is a little light on story (which is the same feeling I’ve had about other movies she’s scripted, such as Corpse Bride and Edward Scissorhands). I felt like City of Ember ended at an ambiguous moment — right at the point where I expected another half-hour of conflict and action. I realize the book ended at this point, and also that there are sequels to the novel, so perhaps this is meant to leave the door open for sequels to the movie as well. It did feel like there were some loose ends — I expected something more sinister from certain characters than what was delivered, and some items that appeared important were never quite explained.
However, the slightness of the story is more than made up for by the compelling characters, especially Lina and Doon. Tim Robbins (who plays Doon’s father), Bill Murray, Toby Jones, and especially Martin Landau as Doon’s coworker, provide vivid and colorful support. Gil Kenan, who previously directed the animated Monster House, has brought us another film in which the setting is a type of character itself — this time the city of Ember, with its failing generator of a heart, and its warm lights that are starting to flicker and fade.
City of Ember will surely remind audiences of another family-friendly movie this year about human survival in the future, Wall-E. It’s odd that two films with such similar themes about the future of Earth would appear in the same year, but I can’t tell you whether that’s coincidence (as with the Capote/Infamous debacle) or some political sign of our times. No overt political message smacked me in the face during this film; instead, I was absorbed in the curious and fascinating city for an hour and a half, enough to want another half-hour of movie, and cheering on the main characters. It’s a simple and lovely tale, perfect for a family outing.