City of Ember: Film Review

After Fox and Walden Media dropped the ball in grand fashion with their "Dark is Rising" adaptation, The Seeker, I was more than timid to step into a book-to-screen rendition of Jeanne DePrau's book, City of Ember. More information slowly tricked in, highlighted Tim Robbins and Bill Murray's involvement, along with a few shots of the stunning set and costume design that Monster House director Gil Kenan and crew had slaved away on. Timidity turned into a little spark of excitement, as it appeared to carry a much more stable head on it shoulders. And wouldn't you know it, I loved City of Ember's atmosphere, adventurous rhythm, and Saoirse Ronan-fueled cast -- but it's all in spite of its two marquee names, not because of them.

Kenan's adaptation paints a picture of Ember, a brightly-lit city locked away from an assumedly post-apocalyptic world, as it grows close to the end of a 200-year countdown. Constructed as a protective measure for its citizens, a series of "builders" assembled Ember into a beautiful, village-sized makeshift shelter deep underneath the ground with an all-pervading mayor, currently Mayor Cole (Bill Murray), that randomly assigns jobs to up-and-coming youths. As the population's food supply depletes and their power generator drapes the city in darkness periodically, it's clear that Ember's on its way to collapse. However, the citizens don't know that they're approaching the end of this all-important countdown, as the box -- along with its secret -- was misplaced during one of the transitions in mayoral power. A hungered, powerless Ember stays afloat because of its weak drive to sustain life and maintain this service-driven status quo, while losing their internal energy at the same rate as the city's rapidly-diminishing light source.

Gaining control and re-instilling faith in one's life become the central themes at City of Ember's core, elements that two teenagers -- Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) and Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement) -- grasp with all their passionate might as they heed an unsung call to save their city from darkness. From the start, their characters become the only autonomous bodies running around Ember; with Lina first receiving the post of "Pipe Worker" and Doon relegated to an unimportant "Messenger" job, their swap at the start of the picture guides them both down a path of boldness and self-proclamation. Emphasizing these two as trailblazers works extremely well for the film's tone, a film primarily about uncontrolled, uninformed claustrophobia. Ember might've crumbled under less charismatic performances, but Treadaway and Academy Award-nominated Ronan barely break a sweat in their independently-minded roles. They're both great, offering two pint-sized heroes for us to back throughout the story.

It's in the roles of keynote authority figures where City of Ember's equilibrium gets thrown out of whack. I didn't think I'd ever say this about Bill Murray, but it proves that there's a first time for everything: he's completely wrong for the role as Mayor of Ember. As a long-running fan of his -- and as someone disappointed that he didn't claim gold on Oscar night for his fantastic performance in Lost in Translation -- it's a hard pill to swallow when he falls flat in the manner that he does here. As soon as Murray appears anywhere throughout the film, whether we're talking about his grand speech to the citizens of Ember or one of the many times he speaks to Lina in his office, City of Ember's pace halts. Instantly, and not in a captivating way. He stumbles all over the place in finding the right rhythm as a miserly weasel with a pot belly and a false attitude, ultimately resulting in a highly dissatisfying villain. Tim Robbins fares a bit better, but not by much; he essentially reincarnates a toned-down shadow of his War of the Worlds hermit character, which we all know how well that played out for Spielberg's reimagining.

Thankfully, Lina and Doon's desperate hunt involves limited face-to-face contact with them (involving much more interaction with solid character turns from Painted Veil's Toby Jones and screen legend Martin Landau), all the while fighting to not allow a skipped beat in their blitzed scramble across Ember's map. As the gears start to click into place and the sleuthing duo begins to connect the dots within its semi-foreseeable storyline, City of Ember allows the current of energy generated within the first two acts to sweep it along for a thought-provoking ride towards its conclusion. Discovering ominous mechanical passageways and usages for intricately-designed relics creates a care-free, mildly involving trek through puzzle-solving that a blast to witness -- boats, maps, bizarre drilling antiquities, the works. It's a watch-'em-do-it scenario instead of a help-'em-do-it, though it still encourages a message of perseverance by revealing more of the Ember's lush architectural secrets through each puzzle they solve.

City of Ember's a gorgeous and enthralling voyage from start to finish, one that transforms simple matters like following behind human-telephone Lina as she darts through dark corners, hallways, and dusty alleys of the city into a sumptuous experience. Absorbing the amber-drenched contours of Ember's low-riding skyline -- reminiscent of dystopian environments in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's City of Lost Children -- becomes part of the journey, as the motion trailing behinf the two central characters breathes life into the film with impressive camerawork and slickly-streamlined editing made to keep idle eyes locked onto its constant activity. With this extra polish and grace, it easily outclasses both its Bridge to Terabithia and The Seeker counterparts in both visual and thematic style, stressing it as a zealous family-friendly quest that rivals National Treasure in quality. At times it sinks into a comfort level which covets style over substance, but it'd be a waste not to indulge in an environment as richly realized and ardent as Ember.


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