If only Bill Murray could be the mayor of every city.
Based on the hit young adult novel by Jeanne Duprau, City of Ember came to life on screen with a considerable amount of talent behind it. The cast includes Bill Murray (Ghostbusters), Tim Robbins (The Hudsucker Proxy), and Martin Landau (Ed Wood). The screenplay adaptation is by longtime Tim Burton collaborator Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands), Tom Hanks (Big) is listed as an executive producer, and the film was directed by geek-friendly filmmaker Gil Kenan (Monster House).
Now on DVD, does City of Ember light up the night, or does it feel like sitting through 200 years of darkness?
It’s the future. Somewhere deep underground, the city of Ember is lit only by electric light, powered by a massive generator. It’s been more than 200 years, though, and the generator is in need of serious repair. The populace lives in fear of the lights going out permanently. Teenagers Lina (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement) and Doon (Harry Treadaway, The Disappeared) are given jobs on the annual day of assigning by the Mayor (Murray). After a quick switch, Lina becomes a messenger, allowing her to traverse all corners of the city, and Doon works in the underground pipeworks, which he hopes will get him close to the all-important generator. During their various adventures throughout and under the city, Lina and Doon discover something is very, very wrong with Ember, and that the city’s mythic builders might have left behind clues as to an exit from the city. Fearing the mayor might be untrustworthy, Lina and Doon decide it’s up to them to decipher the clues. Can they find the exit before the city goes dark forever?
The first thing to note about City of Ember is its style. This is one gorgeous-looking movie. The sets are all gigantic and incredibly detailed — no doubt enhanced by a little CGI here and there. Lit as they are in golden, flickering light, just about every scene is a visual eye-popper. We’re talking Gilliam/Burton/Del Toro set design here. As for the story and characters populating these amazing sets, City of Ember is solid entertainment, but not without its flaws.
The film crams a lot of story into its 95 minutes, and, for the most part, it succeeds. The introductions, first to this world and then to the characters, is all handled quickly and smoothly, so we the viewers can jump right in and join the big mystery. This efficiency is good, in that the movie doesn’t slow down with tons of exposition right at the start, but it’s not as good in that we don’t get to know our heroes as well as we could. For example, although they each have drama at home, Lina and Doon never seemed to connect emotionally with one another. Were they friends before the story started, or was their “job switch” scene the first time they met? A “we’ve known each other since we were little” line would have gone a long way in establishing their friendship, but it never happens.
Lina’s character gets the most emotional weight of the story, with a little sister and a grandmother at home to take care of. Doon’s awkward relationship with his father (Robbins) isn’t handled quite as well, making him more of an exposition-spouting hero, with Lina being the “heart” of the pair. Harry Treadaway does what he can as Doon, but, unfortunately, the script doesn’t demand as much from him. Saoirse Ronan is definitely the star here, jumping into her role with real enthusiasm and likeability.
As for the adults, Bill Murray plays it close to the chest as the mayor, never going too far in the “bumbling politician” direction, while also not going too far in the “pure evil” direction, either. Robbins adds a lot of little quirks to his role, as does Landau, who fills his comic relief role nicely, without overdoing it.
Still, this is more of a plot-driven movie than an actor-driven one. Highlights of the action are Lina’s escape from the mayor’s men, a slimy encounter with a…thing in the pipeworks, and a waterslide escape that the Goonies would have been proud of. Because the movie rocks along at such a quick pace, I doubt you’ll get bored watching it. The music by Andrew Lockington helps out as well, providing a rich, immersive score that bolsters the action onscreen throughout.
I guess this is the part where I bring up the whole “metaphor” controversy. A lot of viewers have politicized City of Ember, griping about what the “message” of the movie may or may not be. Yes, there is an environmental aspect to the story, but it’s merely baked into the setting, so there’s no preachy scene in which the action stops so the characters can expound on the importance of going green. Yes, there is a satirical aspect to the story, with a lazy politician living large off the people, who are toiling away in partial darkness. Still, this doesn’t strike me as any other corrupt and/or buffoonish elected official seen in so many other movies. In my opinion, and mine alone, the real “message” is kid empowerment. While the adults are content merely to do their pre-assigned jobs day in and day out, it’s the kids who search for solutions and go to great lengths to make their world a better place. But, if you disagree, and if you choose to find another meaning in the story, one related to current events perhaps, then I have no problem with that.
This is a fun adventure story, but it’s not one that you should spend too long thinking about. For example:
* The people of Ember are reliant on electricity, I get that, but how have they not mastered fire, in case of their blackouts? Dramatically-timed flares hit the sky during the blackouts, so Ember has alternative forms of light, however short lived. So why don’t they have a big ol’ bonfire going in town square in case of a blackout, and so on?
* If there are hidden contraptions right under workers’ feet, walkways not appearing on standard maps, and unopened control rooms that can manipulate giant equipment, how come no one’s ever noticed any of this before our young heroes came along?
* At one point, the kids discover a bicycle-like contraption formerly owned by one of their parents, which they use to dig through a wall into a previously-sealed cavern. A cool scene, but how does this relate to their escape? Their adventures toward the exit never bring them back to this place, or to the device.
I’m going to stop now. Over-thinking the movie is perhaps inevitable, but it’s still a good enough story that the occasional lapse in logic shouldn’t ruin the whole film.
As expected for such a lavish-looking film, the picture quality here is excellent, making the most of the many browns, reds, golds, and other earthy tones that make up the visuals. The 5.1 sound is great as well, with highlights being the clanging and hissing pipes, the roaring underground river, and the above-mentioned heroic score.
The only extras are three trailers, for Labou, Angel Wars: The Messengers, and Garfield: Pet Force, all three of which look hilariously terrible. Other than that, zilch. A ton of money, time, and talent was obviously spent on making this movie. How on Earth could there not be any looks behind the scenes? We couldn’t get a look at creation of the huge sets and great effects? The cast members couldn’t sit down for some interviews? Gil Kenan, who was so much fun to hear from on the Monster House extras, couldn’t make the time for a commentary? What a disappointment.
I have no problem recommending this movie to fantasy-adventure fans, despite its faults. The lack of DVD extras, however, means you’ll want to make it a rental and not a purchase.