STARRING: Bill Murray, Tim
Robbins, Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Martin Landau, Marianne Jean-Baptiste,
Toby Jones, Mary Kay Place
2008, 95 Minutes, Directed by:
of Ember is a sci-fi fantasy film with forbidding apocalyptic overtones,
extravagant set design, and an edge that mixes high-flying questing with
significant ecological worry.
It's the sort of film Terry Gilliam used to make
before his artistic abilities flatlined: a striking adventure for families that
dares to challenge the senses with atmosphere that isn't always sunny, back
story that isn't neatly cubed for mass consumption and youthful performances
that attain dramatic weight. Even housed in an imperfect cut, City of Ember
is one of the best family films of the year.
While the world neared the end
of days, the nameless Builders took humanity underground, erecting the city of
Ember: a community powered by a massive hydro-electric generator and ruled by a
series of mayors (Bill Murray, in dramatic mode). Now over 200 years old, Ember
is falling apart with generator malfunctions that leave the citizens in the dark
for frightening stretches of the day.
Trying to fit into their newfound
professional roles in Ember, teens Lina (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement) and Doon
(Harry Treadaway, Brothers of the Head) submit themselves to the numbing
grind of the city, only to come across an escape plan left behind by the
Builders. Racing against the clock, Lina and Doon attempt to decipher the
written code before Ember self-destructs, stumbling upon a great deal of
governmental corruption they can barely believe.
Adapted from the popular novel
by Jeanne Duprau, City of Ember is a terribly condensed motion picture. A
natural flow of story is absent from the movie, as director Gil Kenan (the
charming Monster House) and screenwriter Caroline Thompson try to
maintain a ripping pace to Lina and Doon's underground discoveries. The price
for this brevity is a loss of epic scope, reducing Ember to breathless
exposition without the desired time to sit down and take inventory of
characters, motivations, and this incredible world. While I haven't read the Duprau book, the film appears pared down from a longer, more patient cut,
especially around any plot details that dwell on the adults of Ember (including
Tim Robbins, Martin Landau, and Mary Kay Place).
"The sort of film Terry Gilliam used to make . . ."
Narrative shortcomings aside,
Ember packs quite a visual punch, courtesy of Kenan and his gifted crew.
Shunning a potential torrent of special effects, the actual city of Ember is
built on stages, giving the screen beautiful scale and an impression of reality
that's crucial to embracing a grave movie like this. It's a colossal production,
and the effort exposed in the Gilliamesque (or perhaps Jeunet and Caro) details
is remarkable, with terrific rusted and soiled landmarks, along with the
weathered, knitted look of the Ember inhabitants. Kenan masterminds a real world
for the audience to invest in, and Ember is simply gorgeous to behold, if you
like your kid movies with a little more bruising than normal.
The second half of Ember
is pure action mode, following Lina and Doon as they make a break for the
outside world. After a period of expositional bondage, the film takes off like a
rocket as our heroes climb all over Ember's hidden passages, board a potentially
life-threatening flume ride, and search the tattered map for the secrets their
cryptic ancestors waited an eternity to reveal (shades of
The Goonies). Obviously, with the heart pumping and Kenan permitted to
embrace more fanciful visuals, Ember starts to come into its own.
Without spoiling anything,
Ember closes on a wonderfully poetic note, unusual for a family film and
positively foreign to me after last week's reprehensible Beverly Hills
Chihuahua. Offering a powerful metaphorical presentation of life under
environmental pressure, superlative performances from the cast (Ronan is a
gifted actress), and visual gymnastics that return a sense of awe to the movie
theater, City of Ember might be short on narrative depth, but it's long