City of Ember
Directed by Gil Kenan
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Bill Murray, Toby Jones, Tim Robbins, Martin Landau
Release date: October 10, 2008
Fantasy films are a tough business these days. Unless your movie features a character named Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter, it’s doomed to go straight from a brief theatrical run to having to find any sign of shelf life on DVD. But damn if the major studios don’t persist, opening their checkbooks to hire the best cinematic artisans money can buy in the hopes that whatever modestly successful children’s book they purchase the rights to will break the curse and rake in the dough at the box office. As a result us moviegoers have had to endure the likes of Eragon, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, and The Spiderwick Chronicles. Some of these movies were good in their own way, but they only proved to demonstrate that all of the millions of dollars in big-name stars and expensive visual effects can’t match the movies we create instantly in our mind when we lose ourselves in the pages of a good book.
But they do try, and as I mentioned before every once in a while a popular fantasy book series such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter not only break through to become critically and financially successful, but also transcend the typical temporary blockbuster popularity and become pop culture touchstones. I don’t see that happening for City of Ember, the latest film from Monster House director Gil Kenan, but it is a much stronger film than Hollywood has produced for the youth market this year and I would recommend it to anyone looking for an intelligent and visually sumptuous fantasy with a good story. But that’s not to say the movie is without its share of problems.
Sometime in the near future the world as we know it is coming to an end. A small group known only as the “Builders” construct a massive city named Ember located underground so the remnants of humanity can thrive for years to come after the apocalypse. The Builders leave behind a small metal briefcase containing vital instructions for returning to the surface that is timed to open up when the Earth is ready once more to be inhabited, 200 years from now. The case is meant to be passed down among Ember’s leaders, called “mayors,” but when one of the mayors dies before revealing the existence of the briefcase to his successor, it gets shoved into a closet and forgotten about years after the timer runs out.
Now time is running out for the once great city of Ember. The generators that provide the people with power are failing and their food supply is quickly dwindling. But even as Ember crumbles, the citizens go forth with the “Great Day of Singing,” a mass gathering where they sing songs about how there is no world beyond the city’s borders. In fact, the very act of venturing even a few inches outside Ember can get you arrested. Meanwhile, the city’s teenagers attend the “Assignment Day” ceremony where they choose what their tasks in helping keep Ember up and running will be by drawing a slip of paper out of a bag. Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway, Brothers of the Head) and Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement) both draw the jobs they weren’t hoping for — Doon gets messenger and Lina gets a pipeworks job — so they improve their situations by switching jobs.
Life goes on. Doon begins his job at the pipeworks working with crusty old-timer Sul (the legendary Martin Landau) and tries to use his access to get into the city’s generator because Doon believes he can repair it. No luck. Lina dives into her messenger job with much enthusiasm but one day the mysterious, Klaus Kinski-looking Looper (Mackenzie Crook, the UK’s The Office) asks her to deliver a rather cryptic message to Ember’s current mayor Cole (Bill Murray, needs no introduction) that simply says, “Tell the mayor his ship is in.” Before that she witnessed a disheveled man being arrested after having returned from leaving the city and babbling about seeing a river and a way out of Ember.
Lina eventually discovers the fabled briefcase at the bottom of her grandmother’s closet, after said granny sadly passes away. As it turns out, Lina is descended from one of the city’s past mayors, the last one to be seen with the case in his possession. The generator finally reaches its breaking point and yet the mayor and his hatchetman Barton Snode (Toby Jones) are fighting to keep things quiet. Doon and Lina thus decide to follow the instructions in the case and see for themselves if there is indeed a world outside the boundaries of what they’ve been conditioned to accept all their lives.
City of Ember is a film awash in rich imagery and timely socio-political subtext, but its central story suffers from a lack of focus and conflict in the third act. The sets that come together to form the titular massive underground city were constructed on soundstages in Ireland and have a very real yet artificial veneer. It’s like the builders, who are talked about by the Ember citizenry as if they were deities, imagined their perfect city to essentially be the world’s most perfect and unrealized small town, the Bedford Falls of their collective imaginations. The design work that went into the city’s cinematic birth is strangely reminiscent of the Gothic steampunk aesthetic that influenced the look of almost every major big screen big town from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the Anton Furst reimagining of Gotham City in Tim Burton’s first Batman flick. Metropolis also came to my mind during scenes where workers go about their tasks in Ember’s massive generator room.
Watching City of Ember I was also struck by the story’s resemblance to the plots of dark futuristic films such as THX-1138 and Logan’s Run. The similar themes of isolated dystopian societies living in blissful ignorance until someone decides to shake things up by defying the status quo and questioning the received natural order of things and the resulting confrontation with forces from within the ruling system to keep our protagonists from discovering the truth for fear it would cause them to lose their stranglehold on the naive masses have been prevalent in popular literature for years because every day our world seems to be coming closer to making those stories a reality.
Even as the city crumbles and dies Ember’s populace, facing certain doom, decide to come together for a hopeful gathering in the city’s main square to sing peaceful songs. “This is all we know, Ember is forever,” they sing, perfectly content with living their lives in complete darkness. Maybe the Great Day of Singing is meant to be a way for the impoverished masses to help deal with the city’s impending destruction. The night is darkest before the dawn I suppose.
At its best City of Ember is a surprisingly mature adventure for people of all ages brimming with bold imagination and a sense of old school adventure like the movies I grew up with. Director Gil Kenan, working from a screenplay by Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands, The Corpse Bride) that is based on the book by Jeanne Duprau that blends elements of grungy kitchen sink realism and the fantastic, directs his actors to give servicable if not stand-out performances while never being swallowed up by the vast and impressive sets and top-dollar effects work. The city of Ember itself has a wonderful lived-in appearance, a dreamland hamlet that is essentially a movie set built on a movie set and both gorgeous and frightening. Strange, carnivorous creatures and oversized insects creep and cower in every nook and cranny of Ember. The sets are realized by a great design team. Cinematographer Xavier Pérez Grobet, a collaborator of Kenan’s from Monster House, gives the visuals the look of a faded children’s book kept in a musty attic for many years like the mysterious briefcase that holds the keys to Ember’s salvation. Andrew Lockington (Skinwalkers) contributes a fine orchestral score overflowing with the spirit of classic adventure.
One of the script’s biggest flaws is the lack of conflict and suspense in the crucial final act. As our intrepid heroes race against time to escape from Ember and find their way to the surface the action scenes tend to resemble one of those video games like Tomb Raider where all the characters have to do is solve puzzles, find hidden objects, and activate levers and ancient machines without any threat from outside forces. We should be on the edge of our seats, gnawing our fingernails to the nub, etc., but instead it gets kind of dull after a while watching our heroes running from one riddle or puzzle to another. Plus, the threat posed by the villains at the beginning of the third act seems to vanish as they stand around singing while allowing their devious plans to come unraveled without even wanting to do anything about it. This sudden laziness in the storytelling proves to be a serious narrative failure.
To an extent Kenan’s cast is a major virtue. For the two young leads, the director chose Harry Treadaway and Saoirse Ronan and the pair make credible anchors to the plot. Doon lives with his eccentric inventor father (Tim Robbins) and wants to carve out his own path in life by becoming the savior of his fellow Ember citizens. When the case comes along he finally gets his chance and Treadaway gives his character the necessary enthusiasm that drives Doon to carry out his given task. Ronan is his sweet and hopeful counterpoint as Lina, the resilient young girl who remains optimistic even after suffering through the deaths of her parents and having to grow up fast to take care of her young sister Poppy (Amy and Catherine Quinn). Lina uses an old answering machine recording of her father speaking, powered by a foot-cranked player, as a tenuous link to the past and a way of entertaining her impressionable sister. The recording later plays a crucial part in driving the plot forward in the final act. Ronan has incredible energy and has a terrific chemistry with Treadaway. The fact that both actors, like most of the supporting cast, are natives of England never shows as they demonstrate flawless American accents (New York-born Ronan has a gift for accents). But it was no doubt the demands of the U.S. box office and very little else that called for Kenan’s cast to conceal their native accents in the first place, a decision that proves to be unnecessary and has absolutely no bearing on the final product.
The majority of Kenan’s supporting cast is populated by a host of familiar faces who manage to inhabit their roles with professional aplomb even they aren’t given enough screen time to firmly establish their characters. Tim Robbins (Mystic River) is solid as Doon’s sympathetic father, constantly designing interesting gizmos that will come into play later in the story. Toby Jones (The Mist) has the right look and attitude to immerse himself in the part of the Mayor’s oily chief of staff. He revels in the opportunity to be cruel and devious and Jones plays those dark qualities to the hilt. Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Without a Trace) has a handful of scenes as Lina’s kindly friend Clary but she impresses in them all. Screen legend Martin Landau (Ed Wood) could play good-hearted crusty in his sleep as he does here but his presence is welcome. Mary Kay Place (Being John Malkovich) gives a decent performance as Lina and Poppy’s kind guardian Mrs. Murdo. Mackenzie Crook is his good ol’ duplicitous self playing the cold-blooded Looper. Every time he came on screen I kept having memories of Klaus Kinski as the pale-skinned vampire in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu.
Unfortunately one of the big drawing points of the cast for me turned out to be its weakest link. The great Bill Murray can have the time of his life playing a character as wonderfully sleazy as Cole, Ember’s charming but underhanded mayor. But with only a few brief scenes and an occasionally weak script to play off, Murray’s performance never makes an impression. Even worse, his acting constantly screams “Where’s my paycheck?” as he puts on his flowing robes and goes through the motions. Cole is supposed to be the villain of the tale but he mostly stands around channeling his trademark ironic detachment, as if he couldn’t care less what happens. City of Ember needed a great bad guy and the right actor to play him. It sadly doesn’t get it.
While City of Ember ultimately fails on a narrative level towards the finale when it should be building to a big finish, the film still remains an ambitious and visually intriguing entry in the woefully under-appreciated fantasy genre. Kids will probably enjoy it, adults should approach with caution.