Movie Review: City of Ember

“City of Ember” feels like a live-action version the video game “Myst,” with George Orwell at the helm. It’s a series of riddles and hiding-in-plain-sight clues, covered in a suffocating layer of totalitarianism. Pretty heavy material for a movie aimed at ‘tweens, yes, but the “Harry Potter” movies have proven that the kids can handle heavy. Besides, the movie’s adults-never-listen-to-kids angle is catnip to a teenager.

The movie begins by explaining the origins of the Builders, who have created the underground city of Ember in order to preserve mankind after a natural disaster has made life on the surface uninhabitable, and given its citizens instructions to return above ground in 200 years’ time. The plans are contained in a time-locked case, handed down from mayor to mayor, though none of the mayors knows what’s in the box. One of the mayors dies before he hands off the case, however, and it is lost in what ultimately becomes the closet of 12-year-old mayoral descendant Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan). By this time, the 200-year window has long passed, the city’s supplies are dwindling and its hydro-electric generator is on the verge of breakdown. Lina teams up with her friend Doon (Harry Treadaway) to find a way to save the city of Ember, but the treacherous, and surprisingly well-fed Mayor Cole (Bill Murray) would prefer that the citizens of Ember remain in the dark, as it were.

If this doesn’t get accolades for its art direction, it would be a crime; the set pieces are both gorgeous (the overhead lights throughout the city) and a tad creepy (everything else), and as cliché as it sounds, the city is as integral a character to the story as any of the citizens that live in it. If only screenwriter Caroline Thompson had paid as much attention to the details in the story as director Gil Kenan (he directed the super-creepy “Monster House”) did to the set design, we’d have something truly special. Much time is spent on larger-than-life creatures that live in the Unknown Regions, and in the end it means…absolutely nothing. Maybe they’re saving it for the DVD.

Ronan is turning out to be quite the actress; she nails her American accent, and has one of those faces where you can see her looking through whatever problem she’s facing. Expect the “next Jodie Foster” talk to start any minute now. It’s hilarious, though, that they cast Harry Treadaway as her friend Doon. I last saw him playing Joy Division drummer Stephen Morris in “Control,” and a quick IMDb search confirms that he’s twice the age that he’s playing here. (Insert your own Gabrielle Carteris joke here.) Murray was a good choice for Mayor Cole, since Cole is more conniving than physically intimidating (though his gut will get more laughs than his words). Tim Robbins doesn’t get much to work with as Doon’s father, but Martin Landau is a hoot as the narcoleptic pipe worker Sul.

After years of wallowing in the lowest common denominator, children’s movies – live-action children’s movies, at least – are slowly but surely improving. Last year’s “The Seeker” and “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” were not great, but they were a step in the right direction. This year, between “City of Ember” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” the bar is raised even higher. How refreshing to see standards going up for a change.

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)
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