I'm quite willing to believe
Jeanne DuPrau's “City of Ember” has been dumbed down in the usual
Hollywood way, but for those of us who haven't read her book, the new
movie of the same name is an intriguing and exciting way to spend an
hour and a half.
Ember is an underground city that was constructed as
a refuge for the survivors of an unspecified cataclysm that wiped out
life on the surface of the earth. It's powered entirely by electricity
from a huge generator, and nobody has gotten around to inventing
batteries, so the original people chosen to populate Ember must have
been peculiarly dumb and trusting.
These docile folk have entire confidence in the
mayor and his staff, and adore practicing hymns that celebrate the
original “Builders” and prophesy their return.
But the Builders have timed the city to last for 200
years, and things are running down. What kind of disaster has a
half-life of 200 years? You tell me.
The generator is beginning to creak and wheeze and
fail, causing blackouts that terrify the population, because the
blackouts are not just dark, they're completely black. And though only
the mayor and his henchmen know it, the huge storerooms of canned food
are almost empty. (Pineapple that's 198 years past its pull date?)
One great thing about this movie is its look – an
amalgam of Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro by way of Terry Gilliam –
that doesn't look quite like “Batman” or “Pan's Labyrinth” or “Brazil.”
(Not too far afield – Caroline Thompson, who adapted the screenplay
from DuPrau's book, also scripted “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Corpse
Bride.”) The town has a combination of dustiness and glitter that gives
the feel of a Worker's Paradise that has been winding down for two
centuries, like Knott's Berry Farm. And work they all do – at the
school graduation, young kids reach into the mayor's carpetbag and pull
out a slip of paper that settles their occupation for life.
This is only the second feature from director Gil
Kenan, who gave us the animated “Monster House” in 2006. He deftly sets
the mood with a conference of the Builders, and quickly sketches in
enough exposition to get us up to speed.
In fact the film's pace is one of it's problems. It
zips through introductions of major characters and plot points, leaving
us wanting more details. Admittedly, in a movie aimed at kids, the
director has to keep things rolling along at a pace that won't bore the
youngest audience members, but that sometimes happens at the expense of
a certain richness of detail that we expect from a good storyteller.
The lack of detail means we know very little about
our two protagonists, a teen-age boy and girl who get their life
assignments as the movie opens.
Young Doon Harrow (is there a connection with
Dunharrow, the stronghold of the Rohirrim in LOTR? Perhaps only in my
hummingbird-like brain) has drawn a Messenger's job, while Lina
Mayfleet is scheduled for the Pipeworks. Since they both hate their
fates, they swap: Lina loves the idea of running all over town, and
Doon, the son of an engineer (Tim Robbins), thinks he can fix the
If it's hard to imagine a society without email or
text messaging, Ember doesn't even have telephones. If you want to send
a message, you have to pay an official messenger – they wear ratty red
capes for identification – to memorize your message and run it to the
Saoirse Ronan (and I don't know how to pronounce her
first name, but I suspect it sounds something like Circe) played the
creepy little snitch in “Atonement,” the one who caused all the misery.
Here she becomes a brisk, intelligent, young messenger who's loyal to
her family, skeptical about the government (though not quite enough),
and shrewd about deciphering clues.
Harry Treadaway, half of an identical-twin acting
team, plays Doon as a bright boy who helps Lina unravel the details,
and also has enough wiriness to muscle through some physically
demanding situations, such as the attack of a star-nose mole grown to
His scenes with Martin Landau, who plays the
ancient, time-serving head of Pipe Repairs, are a delight, because the
kid has enough sense to back off and let the old pro underplay like,
well, an old pro.
Bill Murray has gone from a surly and sneering SNL
performer to an actor of remarkable restraint whom I watch with
pleasure. Murray playing the mayor of any town is likely to turn in a
very funny performance, but as the mayor of Ember his solo turns are
both sly and subtle, as when he switches to his Public Face before
turning to address his citizens.
The winding-down of Ember's life-span involves a
small metal box that contains the Builders' instructions for escape, or
Egress, from the buried city, which comes to feel as claustrophobic as
a fancy tomb.
The box was originally entrusted to the highest
office, and passed down from mayor to mayor until Lina's ancestor
forgot about it and shoved it into a closet in their apartment, where
her aged grandmother keeps trying to remember something about it.
Granny, played to mumbling perfection by reliable character actress Liz
Smith, may have been hypnotized by the box very slowly, because it
has an LED time display on the outside that counts down from 200
by changing once a year.
By the time Lina recovers the box and discovers the
message, things have come to a dangerous pass in the city's technology,
and Lina and Doon must use the directions for the Egress to escape a
murderous band of mayoral goons who will do anything to protect their
cushy graft-fueled life of luxury. Are there any parallels between this
and the current administration's desperate, grasping efforts to
continue its greedy control of power and money in next month's
election? You decide.
The major disappointment in “City of Ember” comes at
the very end, when Doon and Lina's escape becomes almost a parody of a
thrill ride, with the kids stuck in a tiny boat racing through rapids
that are, apparently, flowing back to the earth's surface. I can hear
the producer: “Kenan, it's good but there's no big action! What, are
you tryin' to get the kids to think?”
The Zeitgeist is the spirit of connection that links
everything happening in a given era, a dialectical progression of a
people or a culture or the world at large. Movies take a long time to
produce, so it's odd that their subject matter often seems timely.
DuPrau published “The City of Ember” in 2003, and negotiations with the
studios must have begun shortly after, and the movie must have finished
shooting in 2007, but for a movie released this week it has some subtle
messages that resonate with the issues of next month's election – the
Zeitgeist at work!
I suppose comments about mendacity, venality and
corruption in those who strive for power are always in order. But
comments about the striving and indomitability of the human spirit are
also always welcome, and without spoiling it the way the poster does,
I'll say that this story has an uplifting ending that suggests a
thoughtful and detailed sequel, which Jeanne DuPrau published as “The
People of Sparks” in 2004.