(20th Century Fox) Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Martin Landau, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Toby Jones, Mary Kay Place. Directed by Gil Kenan
A city can be a place full of wonder and it’s only natural that a young person that comes of age will want to be a part of it in one way or another. However, cities can hide the most sinister of secrets and the older a city becomes, the more likelihood of skeletons hiding in urban closets.
Lina Mayfleet (Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Treadaway) have both come of age and are eagerly awaiting Assignment Day in the city of Ember, a darkened city lit by overhead lamps. Doon hopes for a job where he can make a difference in the city’s infrastructure whereas Lina is hoping for a slot in the Messengers. Of course, neither one gets what they want – Doon gets the Messenger slot and Lina is slotted to work a job in the pipes as a kind of plumber. However, the two swap jobs and attain a reasonable sort of happiness.
There is reason for concern though. The city is prone to blackouts that are happening with greater frequency and for longer periods. There are shortages of food and resources, and rationing is the word of the day. The appearance of giant moths, beetles, bees and moles are becoming more frequent and more dangerous. The city’s technology is breaking down with more and more machines simply failing to work.
The secret of Ember is that it is located deep underground. The Builders of Ember located it there after an unnamed catastrophe made life on the surface of Earth impossible. They also built a metal box with a timer set for 200 years, after which the box would open. The box is entrusted to the Mayor of Ember with strict instructions of Do Not Open until Christmas…200 years from now. The box is passed from Mayor to Mayor who keep the secret of the box’s existence from the people of Ember, until with 47 years to go a Mayor unexpectedly dies without passing the secret of the box to his successor. As a result, the box is put into storage, forgotten and ignored so when the box clicks down to zero, nobody notices.
Fortunately, it is locked in the home of Lina Mayfleet who discovers it. Meanwhile, Doon is discovering to his shock that the great machines that are keeping Ember alive are failing and nobody knows how to fix them. When the two of them go to the current Mayor (Murray) with their suspicions, all Hades breaks loose. It turns out that the Mayor is not only fully aware of the situation but is making precautions for his own survival at the expense of the citizens of Ember. The corrupt Mayor sends the troops out after the plucky kids, who have worked out that the box contains instructions on how to leave Ember and return to the surface, but can they escape their dying city before it takes them with it?
This is based on the first of a quartet of novels by Jeanne Duprau for young adults. This is director Gil Kenan’s second feature (his first was the marvelous animated feature Monster House) and he makes it visually arresting. The city of Ember itself is a rabbit warren, but it is the magnificent machines below the surface that make the grandest impression. This is obviously a decaying society, with lamps that fall from the sky, exposed wiring everywhere and a general air that everything is held together with duct tape and jury rigging. It looks like a city on the edge of falling apart.
The story is something of a parallel, with a 200 year old place grappling with a failing energy supply and environmental disasters. The old guard of the place is keeping the extent of the danger hidden from the citizenry who go about their lives (for the most part) like nothing is wrong, but the young people have a sense that they need to act and act soon. Sound like anywhere you know?
Ronan, who has already received an Oscar nomination in her young but brilliant career (for Atonement) has assembled an impressive body of work for someone so young, and does a wonderful job here, as does Treadaway. Far from being the smug, smart-assed teens we often see in the movies, they are smart, brave and real. They are onscreen for the bulk of the film and it is essential that the audience not only relate to them but like them, and I did.
This is quite a quality movie that took a critical lashing, another instance in which I think most of the critics simply blew it. The movie also crashed and burned at the box office, which is sad – I would have liked to have seen the sequels, but it is unlikely they will ever be made. Still, take comfort in that this is a rare instance of a kid’s movie that doesn’t talk down to its target audience, that treats them as intelligent, thinking people and appeals to their sense of wonder rather than their most base instincts. One City of Ember is worth a hundred G-Forces.
WHY RENT THIS: Smarter fare than most kid’s movies, with amazing set design.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing seemed a bit rushed, particularly towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some moments of jeopardy and peril, and the giant moles and moths might frighten smaller tykes; otherwise, this is suitable for most audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The set for the city of Ember was built in the paint hall in a former shipyard in Belfast, in the city’s Titanic Quarter near where the RMS Titanic was built.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: The Yes Men Fix the World