13 October 2008

Movie Review: City of Ember

City of Ember (2008)
Directed by Gil Kenan. Starring Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Toby Jones, Martin Landau

The film adaptation of Jeanne Duprau’s young adult novel slipped almost entirely under my radar until a friend asked me if I wanted to see it on Sunday morning. I did a quick look-up on the movie, saw the words “post-apocalypse young adult adventure,” and said, “Sure.”

There are some great visual pleasures in City of Ember, but mostly disappointments about a steampunk apocalypse adventure that never manages to get its gears greased and moving.

(Note: I have not read the book, so my analysis here can only reflect on what I see on screen.)

Our story opens with the End of the World by Forces Never Made Clear. A cabal of elderly scientists in clean blue lab coats seal the future of humanity into a metal box that will open in two hundred years, when the remainder of the human race will be able to return to the surface after dwelling in the underground city of Ember. In Ember, the survivors will purposely forget about the world they left behind, and the mayor will keep the sacred metal box until it opens. But during the ensuing years, the box and its purpose are lost, and Ember limps on until failing power generators threatens to plunge the subterranean world into permanent darkness. Two adolescents, Lina (Ronan) and Doon (Treadaway) start to search for a way out of the flickering city, but not only is this forbidden, but they also face a corrupt government under the control of a scene-stealing Bill Murray as the mayor.
The story of a refuge made to survive the apocalypse and a culture that gradually forgets its original purpose will immediately recall one of this year’s best films, WALL·E. A flood of other books and movies also come to mind: The Long Tomorrow, The Matrix, The Village, Below the Root. But City of Ember has enough of a visual concept to make it stand out. Its post-apocalypse setting has a design that resembles Blade Runner and Brazil, although with even more trash. The production is a marvel for the eye, filled with a junk steampunk look and details down to the specificity of the grease and dirt that contaminates every cranny. All the machinery in the city of Ember are patched together monstrosities ground down under numerous repairs to keep them in working condition. The costume design has the same stitched-and-stitched-again aesthetic, and even the actors themselves—with the exception of the strangely shiny and clear-skinned Ronan—appear to be worn down gears.

But the a grand visual scheme can’t overcome the movie’s unrelenting dour pace and tone. Treadaway is a touch blank as Doon, but Ronan, who was one the strengths of last year’s Atonement, adds a spark the gloomy picture often needs. It still isn’t enough for a story that never achieves a sense of adventure or even hope, both of which it obviously strives for. A climatic ride on a log-flume isn’t enough; I can get that at Splash Mountain.

That a film supposedly aimed at a children’s audience should strive for such an unpleasant and grim setting is admirable, but City of Ember forgets to give the viewers something to root for other than two teenagers trying to figures out a set of mechanical puzzles right out of an old text adventure game:
> PUT KEY IN SLOT
The control board lights up.
> PULL GREEN LEVER
The boat below you moves to the dock. It slides down into the water, but the turning wheel destroys it.
> LOWER WATER LEVEL
I can't do that from here.
> GO SOUTH
You need to unlock the door first.
> UP YOURS
I couldn't find the verb in that sentence.
Worse, the audience is already far ahead of the children, since the prologue already told us the secret they are trying to uncover. The only way the film can overcome this is to have an even more surprising revelation greet our hero and heroine—but it never happens. The ending leaves too many questions (What was the mayor really trying to achieve? What was the giant mole all about? How did Ember get built with such complex mechanisms for the population’s eventual release during the chaos of the end of the world?) and litte satisfaction. The abrupt conclusion at least made me curious about reading the book and its sequel… with City of Ember’s box office performance, I know I won’t see the sequel on the big screen any time soon.

The reviewers at CHUD seem to agree with my assessment.