© 2008 Ray Wong
While there's plenty of fantasies and adventures for young adults, we haven't seen many science fiction lately, and City of Ember is a nice entry in that genre with some grand themes and neat ideas.
As the world comes to a catastrophic end, a number of engineers and scientists -- the "Builders" -- have built an underground city, which they call the City of Ember, where the last of the human race can live and self-sustain for many years. They have also written specific instructions for their descendants to leave Ember after 200 years. The plan and instructions are kept in a locked metallic box and passed down from mayor to mayor. Unfortunately, the box is eventually lost, and 200 years have come and gone but no one in Ember knows about "the plan."
Another century or so later, the City of Ember is on the verge of collapsing. Food is scarce and the generator is failing. Once the generator fails, everyone in the city will die. Their society is living in constant fear and a totalitarian state under the rule of Mayor Cole (Bill Murray). Messenger Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan), a descendant of the city's 7th Mayor, discovers a mysterious box in her grandmother's apartment. She realizes the significance of the box and tries to alert Mayor Cole of a possible "exit" to the outside world. She and pipe-worker Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) uncover Cole's secrets, and they're now on the run to escape capture, while trying to find the exit that may be the only salvation for the citizens of Ember.
Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) has proved once again what a wonderful young actress she is. Her performance is solid, nuanced, and precise. She's definitely one to watch (with her next project, the much-anticipated adaptation of The Lovely Bones, coming up). Harry Treadaway (Control) is adequate as Ronan's male counterpart, Doon. He's a little bland as the hero, but he and Ronan make a good team.
Bill Murray (Get Smart) stands out like a sore thump, however, as Mayor Dole. I think his personality is too large for the role -- all I can see is Murray playing Bill Murray dressed in robes. He's too comfortable playing the role the Bill Murray way. Tim Robbins (The Lucky Ones), on the other, is rather good in a small but pivotal role as Doon's father; at least, he's able to disappear into the role, unlike Murray. The supporting cast also includes Toby Jones (W) as the Mayor's assistant, Martin Landau (Entourage) as a master pipeworker, and Mary Kay Place (Mama's Boy) as the cherubic and utterly clueless Mrs. Murdo.
The screenplay, adapted from Jeanne Duprau's novel, by Caroline Thompson (Corpse Bride) maintains a nice apocalyptic tension in the story. There are many grand themes such as societal uncertainties, communism/socialism, chaos, corruption, personal choice and freedoms, etc. that are not usually present in YA science fiction or fantasy. While the prologue and the ending are a bit too "storybook," the rest of the screenplay is dramatically taut, with enough mystery, action, suspense, and character development to keep us going.
The characters are very likable, without being too cute or cartoonish. Once the prologue is out of the way, the plot advances without being stuck with lots of exposition. There are some silly moments and cliched plot elements, but over all, Thompson's succeeded in creating a special world and keep us there.
Director Gil Kenan (Monster House) also helps in bringing the vision of the City of Ember to life. The production is fantastic, with great sets and costumes. the visuals are appropriate and otherworldly without being too outrageous. It's also nice to see real sets and props instead of CGI. Kenan also keeps the pace fast without sacrificing character development. The plot progresses logically and clearly. The action is exciting without a lot of unnecessary violence. However, some special effects do seem like an afterthought, and could have been done better during post-production. Kenan (and Thompson) manages to keep the number of characters small, focusing only on a handful of key players.
I went to the theater not expecting much (and I'm still bothered by Bill Murray's presence), and I was pleasantly surprised. It's well-crafted, well-executed, and well-performed. It inspires a certain awe and I'm impressed by the grand themes that are not normally presented in YA fantasies. And so it's not only appropriate for the younger crowd -- it can be enjoyed by a whole city of folks, young and old alike.
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Toby Jones, Martin Landau, Mary Kay Place
Director: Gil Kenan
Writer: Caroline Thompson (based on Jeanne Duprau's novel)
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG for mild peril and some thematic elements
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 7
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.8 out of 10