City of Ember, the most recent film from Walden Media, starts on a bit of a downer. In a post-apocalyptic era, a city has been built deep in the earth’s core, presumably to protect the human race from nuclear fallout. The great minds that created this underworld, City of Ember, have also come up with an exit plan to be initiated 200 years after the human race is sent below the surface. The plans for this escape are kept in a steel box with special key card and directions to help humans begin anew up top. In the course of the 200 years, the care of the metal box was passed down from mayor to mayor, each one given instructions of what to do once the 200 years is up. Unfortunately, one of the mayors died suddenly, taking the secrets to preserving humanity with him. When the film begins, the city is falling apart. The huge generator that powers the City of Ember is running out of juice, creating treacherous blackout; food is scarce; and the mayor of the City, a man who should have the citizens’ best interest in mind, is hoarding the scarce supplies for himself.
The heroes of City of Ember are two teenagers, Doon Harrow and Lina Mayfeet. As the film opens, Doon and Lina are assigned jobs, careers they are to hold for the rest of their lives. Doon, a highly intelligent young man, is in pipe works and Lina, a speedy girl, is a messenger. Doon, convinced that the generator is about to die, believes he knows how to fix it. Although he’d rather be an electrician, he takes advantage of his job, learning everything he can about the plumbing of the city and how it all connects to the generator. Meanwhile, Lina shines in her role as a messenger. It’s upon delivering a message to the Mayor that we discover that Lina is a direct descendant of the mayor who died. Soon thereafter, she discovers the metal box and the secrets to saving the human race. When Doon and Lina uncover how the mayor has been cheating and stealing from his people, they confront him only to be labeled treasonous and hunted by the authorities. Together, they alone must figure out the clues and unlock the secrets of the City of Ember.
Doon and Lina are wonderfully drawn characters and the young actors playing them are perfectly cast. Harry Treadway (Control) asserts Doon’s confidence without coming off as grating and as Lina, Saoirse Ronan, fresh off her Oscar nominated performance in Atonement, shows that she is a remarkably gifted actress, one with a bright future. It has become a tradition to cast well-known and/or award-winning adult actors in supporting roles for family films to help raise the stature of the movie. The hope, on the producers’ part, is that these recognizable faces will entice parents to bring their children to the movie. City of Ember is no exception, as it features award winning actors in Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Toby Jones, Mary Kay Place, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and the legendary Martin Landau.
Each of these fine actors commits to their roles and never come off as if they’re doing it for the paycheck. Murray oscillates between benevolent and sinister with an ease that is a joy to watch; Jones is exceptional as the evil henchman to the mayor; Robbins brings the same quiet strength he used in Mystic River to his role of Doon’s eccentric, inventor father, while Landau appears to be having a good old time as the wacky, Sul, Doon’s mentor in the pipe works. Jean-Batiste, best known for her weekly role on the CBS drama, Without A Trace, is so good in the role of surrogate mother to Lina that I wish her role were larger.
Working with a script by Caroline Thompson (Corpse Bride and The Secret Garden), director Gil Kenan has created a wonderfully complex world. He has a remarkable gift for setting up a scene and allowing the performances and the camera to flow with the action (the camerawork when Lina is sprinting through the city is exhilarating). Both in production design and through the cinematography, Kenan’s world falls somewhere in the realm of Brazil and Delicatessen. Kenan’s only previous directing credit is the delightful, Oscar nominated Monster House. Making the leap from animation to live action is tough and rarely done (usually it’s the other way around). But Kenan has a gift for storytelling and is, in my opinion, a visionary.
Although City of Ember is not full of scares that will make kids jump and shout, its themes and the tone are much darker than most family fare, (what, with the survival of the human race at stake. Furthermore, with its abundant use of muted brown and a world with no sunlight, at first glance the film looks depressing. Plus there are no cute animals or fairy tale creatures to assist these plucky teens in their mission. They must rely solely upon their own wits. But calling City of Ember just family fare doesn’t do it justice. This is a serious film of science fiction and drama that happens to have children as its protagonists. That City of Ember was not a success in theaters is a shame, but not overall surprising. Hopefully with the release of the DVD, this film will find its audience.
Purchase City of Ember at Amazon.