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FAN THE FLAME

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 generator.
    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 recipient.
    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 alarming proportions.
    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.