City of Ember
2008, PG, 95 min. Directed by Gil Kenan. Starring Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Mackenzie Crook, Martin Landau, Toby Jones, Mary Kay Place, Liz Smith.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 10, 2008
Based on the young-adult novel by Jeanne Duprau, City of Ember digs deep but ends up feeling surprisingly cobbled-together from cinematic odds and ends that include everything from The Goonies to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to The City of Lost Children. I haven't read the source novel (which is part of an ongoing series), but I'd wager that it packs more of a punch than this film, which, despite boasting a splendidly inventive production design and a comically villainous turn from a thoroughly engaged Murray, feels less like a timeless children's classic than a timely tale of living in the abyss. Set in the underground city of the title, City of Ember is, on the face of it, the story of two teens – Doon Harrow (Treadaway) and Lina Mayfleet (Ronan) – coming of age just as the society around them begins an inexorable slide into darkness. In a prologue that's more than a little vague, we learn that the whole of mankind now lives below ground, having fled there after unspecified apocalyptic events topside have rendered the earth uninhabitable. This peaceable kingdom (sort of: Murray plays Mayor Cole although his actions are more regal) is powered by a massive generator and has been for 200 years, but now the patchwork power source is failing beyond repair, leaving both lights and lives in jeopardy. Enter Doon and Lina, who, following the classic tropes of inquisitive kids saddled with the salvation of the species, bypass their supposedly wiser elders (including Robbins as Doon's inventively in-denial father) and join forces to search for a fabled way out of Ember. With its crowded, rickety latticework of makeshift hovels and miles of tangled, life-sustaining electrical wiring, the very notion of a Con Edison-inspired subterranean world has a certain incandescent, retro charm, and the film also benefits from some snappy and strange character work from Landau and Smith. But, ultimately, it's undone by the overfamiliar nature of Doon and Lina's quest, the outcome of which, while breathlessly paced, is never really in question.