Movie Review - 'City of Ember' Underwhelms

Movie Review - City of Ember

Based on the bestselling novel by Jeanne Duprau, City of Ember is Walden Media’s latest attempt to build a family-friendly fantasy franchise to bookend its Narnia series.

However, just like the company’s other attempts at adapting literary success stories (see “The Seeker”, “Nim’s Island”, “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium”), this one falls short of the mark.

Undermined by a wafer-thin screenplay and predictably directed by Gil Kenan, Ember wastes a clever premise with a preachy, heavy-handed approach.

The movie begins with a voiceover by Loris Harrow (Tim Robbins), explaining how The Builders two centuries prior created Ember. With mankind on the verge of extinction (for reasons not clearly explained), this cabal of old, bearded white guys decides to play God and send a group of survivors to spend the next 200 years in an underground city powered by a massive generator.

The Builders leave crystal-clear instructions to lead the residents of Ember back above ground after two centuries have passed. They lock them in a special metal box, which is handed down in secret, from one city mayor to another. Over time, however, the box and the instructions inside were lost.

Ember has fallen into disrepair. Pipes leak, the food supply is dwindling and the generator that powers the city is failing, causing blackouts that last longer each time.

The residents of Ember live a meager existence, virtual prisoners since it’s against the law to try and leave. Their futures are decided on Assignment Day, when graduating students pick their professions out of a bag held by the Mayor (Bill Murray). If you’re lucky, you become an electrician’s helper. Pick the wrong slip of paper, though, and you’re a potato peeler or a messenger for life.

Our teenage heroes Lizzie (Saoirse Ronan, Oscar-nominated for “Atonement”) and Doon (Harry Treadaway), both realize the city’s power generator is on the verge of a permanent meltdown.

When Lizzie stumbles across the mayor’s long-missing metal box, they set about trying to piece together the map that signals the way out of Ember.

Problem is, they figure things out entirely too fast and with little, if any, suspense. There’s no buildup, no drama at all, despite the grating presence of a theatrical score that makes the music in “Gladiator” seem restrained.

Many of the map’s twists and turns also made little sense. The instructions from The Builders were so needlessly convoluted, it was as if they didn’t really want people to find their way out of Ember.

Martin Laing’s production design is an Art Deco/Steam punk pastiche, with drab surroundings and ragtag clothing. The picture has a decidedly low-tech style, leaving moviegoers wondering whether that was by creative design or necessity, but it is curious to only see a few wide shots of the city (apparently, not even having Tom Hanks as a producer could free up more money for set design).

In fact, for a movie that’s billed as a fantasy adventure, City of Ember is remarkably light on visual effects. We get a mention of dangerous mole creatures running around the city, but we only see one the entire film!

As for the actors, Ronan and Treadaway are actually quite likeable in the lead roles, but the screenplay doesn’t give them much to do except worry about the power going out.

Murray is delightfully sleazy as the slothful, corrupt head of the city who can barely conceal his disgust for his citizens. But he’s underutilized here, as is Tim Robbins as Doon’s kooky inventor dad.

And why hire a great actor like Martin Landau for what amounts to a throwaway role as an elderly pipe worker with a habit of falling asleep on the job?

Director Kenan, an Oscar nominee for the animated feature “Monster House”, makes an unimpressive live-action directing debut here. Abrupt editing and unimaginative camera angles are just a few of the problems with the film.

He does redeem himself a bit with the film’s big finish, a thrilling theme park-like flume ride through a winding underground river that’s like the set-piece cousin to the mine car scene from another recent Walden Media effort, “Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D.”

But just like the Splash Mountain ride at Disney World, the scene ends just when it’s getting good. In fact, that pretty much sums up the movie.

By the time we get to the finale, you’re left with a feeling of, ‘Is that it?’

The possibilities for further Ember adventures are clearly laid out at the end, thanks to one well-placed rock with a message. Before any sequels are given the go-ahead, let’s hope the filmmakers see the light and spend more time developing a better script.

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