City Of Ember

  • Year:2008
  • Rating:G
  • Director:Gil Kenan
  • Cast:Bill Murray, Amy Quinn, Catherine Quinn, Tim Robbins
  • Release Date:December 11, 2008
  • Distributor:Icon
  • Running time:95 minutes
  • Film Worth:$14.00
  • FILMINK rates movies out of $20 - the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

“…an extraordinary children’s adventure…”


Gil Kenan's university thesis film, The Lark, first caught the attention of powerbroker producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, who offered the young director his feature debut, the rousing kids' fable Monster House. Rendered in Zemeckis' now trademark motion capture animation (which the director used in The Polar Express and Beowulf), the film proved a minor hit, earning Kenan a second go. Produced under the Walden Media banner by another major Hollywood face in the form of Tom Hanks, City Of Ember is an extraordinary children's adventure to rival those of Kenan's hot shot producer heroes (Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Back To The Future, Toy Story, et al).

Based on the first novel in a four-part series from author Jeanne Duprau, City Of Ember is a post-apocalyptic, steampunk adventure about the denizens of a titular dying community. Buried by semi-mythical "Builders" a quarter millennia before the film's main events, Ember was to be a completely self-sufficient and insular city to protect its residents from the threat of a cataclysmic event referred to only as the "Disaster". Reaching the present after a too-brief historical preamble, Kenan and screenwriter Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas) embark on a spiraling adventure to save the town before its generator, and therefore all of its electrical lights, go out for good. Their young leads are up to the challenge, with the accomplished and talented Irish actor Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) playing Lina Mayfleet, the wide-eyed heroine. Her feelings of dawning dread are shared by school chum and nascent love interest Doon Harrow (played by British young gun Harry Treadaway from Control) who, true to his gender, carries slightly more angst into the role.

The science fiction construct of City Of Ember is both familiar and ambitious, simultaneously echoing cyber-punk films (Dark City), throwback children's flicks (The Goonies) and dystopic fantasies (The City Of Lost Children), and willfully engaging its younger audience members with an assortment of moronically flawed adults, particularly those in power. A long line of ineffectual civic leaders in Ember has led to the broadly shonky Mayor Cole (perfectly inhabited by the soggy, misanthropic Bill Murray). Fat and flattered, Cole's nakedly apathetic response to the food and power crisis is seconded by his favourite two-faced crony (the terrific Toby Jones from Infamous), a corrupt storeroom manager (The Office's Mackenzie Crook, at his most conniving) and a wowser choir leader (subtly and creepily inflected by the always fine Mary Kay Place). Even the likeable adults - like Doon's warm, inventor father (a befuddled Tim Robbins) and his senile boss (Martin Landau, usually asleep), and Lina's de facto godmother (the earnest Marianne Jean-Baptiste) - hold dark secrets and lie seemingly constantly.

By rendering his adults so unimpressive, Kenan drops Ember's hopes and dreams into the laps of Lina and Doon. The pair share a common attraction, but for the purposes of this film (its likely sequel is another story), they are less a romantic couple than a cooperative pair. Thrust into action, they set about investigating the mayor's massive deceit and the long repressed disappearance of Lina's heroic father figure. With infectious, kinetic energy, they uncover a city teeming with romantically rendered bizarreness: metre-long moths flutter about to consider the millions of suspended incandescent bulbs; a bloodthirsty giant mole (with prehensile papillae on its star nose) wreaks havoc and eats townsfolk; handmade, analogue mechanisms service most household needs; and a messenger service (employing Lina) replaces telephones. Indeed, for all that City Of Ember's narrative pacing, sound script and strong performances fuel its many successes, the design and decoration of the city truly makes the film. Featuring a beguiling mix of miniatures and location shooting in Northern Ireland, City Of Ember sees Dickensian elements (cobblestones, ragged clothing, yellowed tomes) blended into faux Victorian mechanical devices (sewing machines, cranks and pulleys) and malfunctioning 20th century technology (answering machines, electrical generators). Kenan may not be a simple style merchant, but his tactile look is the film's biggest star.

Plot holes - perhaps expectedly - abound, especially in the film's rudimentary and too quick recap of the past 300 years. How mega-fauna like giant moles and moths evolved in a few hundred years isn't touched upon, nor is the job of changing light bulbs hanging dozens of metres overhead. City Of Ember is able to effectively wash most logical question marks, however, with thoughtful, surrealist touches, such as depriving the audience of date and location. The city could potentially be buried under any (English speaking, vaguely Anglo-Saxon) countryside, and the "Disaster" could represent any form of annihilation (nuclear, infectious, climate based, intergalactic, etc). Similarly, by removing any characters with memories of past events, the film successfully distances itself from our present with its common concerns.

While widely self-aware and referential to past children's works, City Of Ember also boasts a self-seriousness which borders on the naïve. That innocence and the film's childish preoccupations are utterly necessary, of course, as this is a post-apocalyptic work designed to be watched by children. With such a responsibility, this film - like Pixar's similarly themed Wall-E - is compelled to tread lightly in terms of philosophical depth and to carry an ultimate message of hope.

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