When a movie begins with a narrator intoning, “The day the world ended…” you can be sure that there’s a caveat somewhere. With City of Ember that caveat is that a bunch of the best and brightest built an underground city so mankind could live on. An ingenious device was placed in a box that would open in two hundred years, giving instructions on how to return to the surface to find out if the upper world was once again inhabitable. Unfortunately, the device [which was to be inherited by each succeeding mayor] was lost when the seventh mayor had a heart attack and the box was put away in a closet.
Now, two hundred years later, Ember is falling apart. The city’s generator is cranky and blackouts are occurring – each longer than the last. Food supplies are getting low – and what food can be grown in the city’s greenhouse is looking less and less edible. The city is run by the corrupt Mayor Cole [Bill Murray] – the only person in town who is actually fat. Into this situation come Lina Mayfleet [Soairse Ronan] and Doon Harrow [Harry Treadaway] who swap assignments after graduating from whatever school exists there – she to become a messenger, he to become a pipeworks worker.
City of Ember is darkly gorgeous to look at. The actual city looks like a close-packed English village with a central meeting circle, but the machines that keep the city alive are oddly fascinating, clunky Rube Goldberg devices that actually have uses. Though the citizens of Ember are worried about what’s happening their fears are assuaged by the mayor and a group of religious singers [led by Mary Kay Place’s Mrs. Murdo – who takes in Lina and her sister, Poppy when their grandma dies].
Based on the novel by Jeanne Duprau, City of Ember starts slowly, like the city’s generator, and then [unlike the dying generator] picks up steam as it goes – and as Lina and Doon discover that there may be a way back to the surface – all tied into fragments of instruction in a weird little box Lina finds in her gran’s closet. Their characters aren’t all that well developed but both Treadaway and Ronan make us care about them. Other notable actors also make a lot of slenderly written, though pivotal characters like Tim Robbins [as Doon’s inventor father, Loris; Marianne Jean-Baptiste as greenhouse keeper, Clary, and Martin Landau, as pipeworks veteran, Sul].
With its touches of satire, fable-like storytelling and enthralling design, City of Ember manages to engage for its ninety-five minutes – though kids will likely find it vastly more engaging than adults [if Murray hadn’t sleepwalked through the role of Mayor Cole, that might have been different].
Final Grade: B-