Imagine a society living in shadow, a place where corruption rules, infrastructure is failing, and cynicism replaces hope in the minds of its citizens. No, we’re not talking about America at the end of the second Bush term here; rather, we’re talking about Ember, the namesake city of the new film from director Gil Kenan.
Adapted from the popular 2003 novel by Jeanne DuPrau, City of Ember tells the story of a civilization forced underground by cataclysm. Two hundred years or more have passed since the unfortunate event, and the city that has sprung up below decks, Ember, is a sooty place fenced in by darkness, a kind of subterranean Hooverville whose ragged youth look like cast extras from Annie. Ember’s residents have managed to plod along for years in relative peace and stability, but bad things are starting to happen. The city’s massive generator has begun to fail, touching off blackouts that are lasting longer and longer.
This is especially alarming to Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway), one of the film’s adolescent heroes. Doon is certain that there’s a way out of Ember, and he’s going to find it. Of course, people have been trying to escape Ember for years, either dying in the process or staggering back to town with a look in their eyes that was last seen on Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. But Doon is different: He has the pluck and deeply cleft chin of a young Luke Skywalker, and, most important, he has the help of his best friend Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement), a girl who at every turn demonstrates wisdom and judgment well beyond her years.
Ember wears its allegory on its sleeve, shaping up as a tale of deceptive government ruling over a resigned populace. As Ember’s crafty Mayor Cole, Bill Murray, with his rumpled, hangdog looks, gives the film’s most enjoyable performance. Cole is a Mussolini with a wink and a nod; as Ember’s lights fade and its pipes begin to leak, his answer is to lead residents in song. Rather than take the time to fix the homeland’s crumbling infrastructure, he proposes to establish a committee to “investigate” the blackouts. The crowd cheers. The parallels to our own situation are hard to overlook.
Tim Robbins is appealing as Loris Harrow, Doon’s dispirited inventor-father. When he’s not tinkering with bolts and screws, Loris is dispensing tired advice to his son. But he’s there with the goods when they’re needed: a pocket tool designed for the escape and a getaway car that looks like a webby recumbent bike. Martin Landau makes an appearance as a kooky plumber whose help, like Robbins’ character, is right on time.
The movie’s storyline holds few surprises, and the story is woefully hurried in the telling. After an hour in the darkness, we still have no good idea of what sort of place Ember is, and what sort of people live there. At the same time, so much of the movie is spent there that the last scene arrives so suddenly that it’s hard not to wonder if the projectionist has lost a reel. The movie is a textbook example of how difficult it is to adapt a long-form fantasy novel to the screen. To be sure, Kenan has done admirably with Ember’s visual presentation, but without the three-hour run-time and bottomless budgets of a Lord of the Rings approach, viewers are bound to come away from the movie with an incomplete sense of place.
What redeems Ember is its temperament. It’s an exceedingly polite film, largely free of gore and even the kind of exclusive humor that teen adventure films have a habit of indulging in. As heroes, Treadaway and Ronan’s characters are earnest to a fault, all business as they claw their way out of their doomed city.
They could be having a little more fun doing it, but who are we to criticize? Grown-ups have failed them in the past, and they’re not about to sit around waiting for help from above. Ember’s setting may be post-apocalyptic but the message is not: A little bit of trying, and we’ll get out of this mess. The same, we can hope, is possible for the rest of us.