City of Ember (2008)

hr_city_of_ember_posterMythmaking in the movies has never enjoyed a more fruitful age than this present era of special effects.  What’s missing, however, is the depth and subtly the filmmakers of the past could weave without easy access to glitter and glow.  City of Ember, another Walden Media kid-lit adaptation, has all the ingredients needed to create a compelling myth.  What it lacks is the patience to let it all simmer. 

Ember, based on the book by Jeanne Duprau, begins as the Builders prepare humanity for the end.  They have constructed Ember, a vast city, deep underground, to shelter the human race from an unnamed catastrophe.  In a small parcel, they lock away a prepared a set of instructions to lead the people out once enough time has passed.  They set the parcel’s timer for 200 years, and as the years tick by, the parcel is passed down to each of Ember’s mayors, until by accident, the parcel is lost. 

Now, the Builders are regarded as little more than legends, the timer on the box reached zero long ago, and Ember’s vast array of lights are beginning to flicker and go out. 

It is Assignment Day; the day Ember’s young students will draw a job out of a hat and start a career.  Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) wants to work in the generator room.  Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) wants to be a messenger, and when her and Doon end up with jobs neither one likes, a trade suits both their desires—Lina accepts Doon’s messenger assignment, and Doon heads for the pipeworks. 

The story unfolds against Doon’s obsession with learning the massive generator’s workings, and a tiny parcel Lina’s little sister Poppy discovers in the closet.  Inside, Lina finds the Builders’ instructions, half chewed by the precocious toddler, and she enlists Doon’s help to learn its secrets. 

Differences between book and film always create a divide between any established fan base, and the film’s audience.  In this case, screenwriter Caroline Thompson (who also penned Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride) adds the character of Doon’s father Loris (Tim Robbins), who helps to elevate some of the thematic weight that takes the book 50 pages to convey. 

Loris likes to build things when he’s not rambling off words of wisdom to his son.  “Notice the things no one else notices,” Loris tells Doon, “and you’ll know the things no one else knows.”  Though it may seem a tad cliché, it serves the narrative’s thematic direction: pursuit of the intended will and purpose entrusted to them by those who sought to protect them.  “If you have proof, you have to pursue it!”

The people of Ember, however, embody a collective disillusionment. Their mayor (Bill Murray) espouses unity and courage, yet drinks from the cup of corruption once he steps back behind his veil.  Devout believers in the Builders wander the streets singing hymns, yet most of the city’s inhabitants believe the Builders abandoned them.  Food is in short supply, and the city is cursed by frequent blackouts that last longer and longer.  The quest to find a way out becomes a linchpin to the narrative—the Builders never abandoned them; they left instructions. 

The plot garners all the magic of modern mythmaking—new beginnings, transcendence, courage and conviction.  The filmmakers fail, however, in not taking enough time to unfold its developing themes, and linger on their inherent beauty. Not that the film looks bad—cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet lifts Ember right off the pages of Duprau’s book, lighting the city’s interior with bright phosphorescent yellow, contrasted with the deep black of the city’s dark outskirts. 

Director Gil Kenan (Monster House) lends some competence to the film’s shortcomings—he knows the value of the landscape of a character’s face, but spends too much time setting up pay-offs that end too soon.  His cast, however, delivers.  Bill Murray downshifts his antics and delivers a surprisingly subtle villain, and Tim Robbins channels a little of Andy DuFresne’s meticulous patience. 

Saoirse Ronan (who earned an Oscar nom for her work in Atonement) is an actress to watch.  While Ember never really gives her a chance to stretch her legs, at 14-years-old, she’s already learned that her eyes convey the best body language.

Duprau’s novel is a visual, imaginative splendor, and a ripe candidate for screen adaptation, particularly for Walden Media.  And while City of Ember certainly falls among the better entries in the Walden canon, it still cannot maintain the grasp needed to carry the weight of creating a modern myth.

(you can also see this review at Blogcritics here)

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