City of Ember (2008)

In the wake of the first Harry Potter and Narnia films, a lot of studios jumped on the “let’s adapt a popular science-fiction/fantasy kids’ book and hope for a franchise” bandwagon, a trend that seems to have peaked in the late 2000’s (and has since been replaced with a run on “edgy” young adult novels). One of the many resulting movies is City of Ember:

Towards the tail end of an otherwise unspecified apocalyptic event, world leaders make a decision to sequester a portion of humanity in an underground city, cut off from the planet’s surface both physically and mentally (in that children born there are not supposed to learn about the outside world). They leave secret instructions with the city’s first mayor on how and when it will be safe to come back, to be passed on from mayor to mayor. Unfortunately, there’s a break in the chain, knowledge of an exit is lost, and the city’s intended “expiration date” is passed.

This low-information plan is rather daft to begin with, of course, but I guess there wouldn’t be a film otherwise, and I did like the montage that visualised the whole process. And I really love this kind of premise, where the survivors of a cataclysm use old technology handed down by their forbears without knowing where it came from or how to fix it. Ember, the place, has a nicely grimy and run-down look to it given what was presumably a rather low budget. It’s a pity that the rest of the movie doesn’t match the art design in quality.

The other production values don’t really manage to rise above mediocrity, at best. The special effects are decent when practical, I suppose (with the notable exception of Bill Murray’s belly), but not so much when computer-generated (especially a river chase of sorts near the end, above obviously fake water). Andrew Lockington’s score belongs in a better movie. Acting-wise, Murray, who plays Ember’s current mayor, somehow comes across as both bored and hammy. Martin Landau, in a could-have-been interesting spin on the mentor type, overacts as if to an audience of toddlers. Saoirse Ronan is likable but otherwise underchallenged; her male co-lead Harry Treadaway, who looks like a cross between Breaking Bad‘s RJ Mitte and Merlin‘s Colin Morgan, seems overeager and is about as convincing as his two look-alikes in the first seasons of their respective shows, before they’d grown into their roles. Given that neither Ronan nor Treadaway are American, their accents are fairly good, though.

That said, it’s likely unfair to chide the lead actors for failing to positively stand out when the script doesn’t really give them an opportunity to do so. Ember, the place, disappoints because it’s a world full of wasted potential and unchallenged inconsistencies. You can’t have both randomly assigned jobs (which isn’t really a workable idea, anyway and should maybe have been emphasized as one reason Ember is breaking down) and a money-based economy. It’s nice that there is supposedly gender and racial equality (the first mayor is female, for instance), but all the films’ villains and other people of power are white men. There’s a single black supporting character, and the only Asian person is in a painting. Everyone speaks American English, which can generously be interpreted as a compromise language for the survivors and not so generously as mainly white Americans being saved from the end of the world; the also rather uncharitable answer closest to the truth is presumably perceived marketability.

The plot is perfunctory and convenient, with very little in the way of actual obstacles for the two main characters (one male, one female, both white), who don’t have a need for character growth because they’re already pretty perfect. Instead of world-building, the film has its protagonists peruse the same handful of locations over and over. Instead of a journey of exciting and unexpected adventure, the precocious teen heroes mainly play a boring bout of connect-the-dots, following in the footsteps of their parents who just so happened to already do much of the work for them. A possibly mentally-challenged kid sister to the lead girl is completely superfluous.

Discovery of strange old wonders, the main attraction of this kind of setting for me, is relegated to a few minutes towards the end. Opportunities to explore interesting, complex themes like (misplaced) faith in a higher power, small societies’ tendency to enforce conformity, free thought and creativity versus a Pharisean adherence to tradition, and the tangible consequences of nuclear war are left largely untapped (the latter is given lip-service by very silly mutated creatures, I guess). The film is altogether too unambitious and too simplistic in its depiction of morality, too.

Ultimately, then, City of Ember might be a mildly enjoyable kids’ film, but is memorable more for its premise than for its execution. It’s not bad, but certainly doesn’t deliver on the promise of its cool poster. Whatever your imagination can come up with is likely more interesting than what the movie actually shows, which means I can’t really recommend that anybody watch it.

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