by Mel Valentin
"City of Ember," the latest adaptation from Walden Media, the Christian-owned media company dedicated to bringing children’s classics to the big screen (e.g., "Charlotte’s Web," "The Bridge to Terabithia," "The Chronicles of Narnia" franchise), with, of course, a family values-centered message, is, on balance, their least polemical. Whether due to the source material, a post-apocalyptic novel written by Jeanne Duprau for young adults, or the adaptation directed by Gil Kenan ("Monster House") and written by Caroline Thompson ("Corpse Bride," "Snow White," "The Nightmare Before Christmas"), viewers looking for a Christian message will be hard pressed to find one in "City of Ember" (that’s actually a good thing, in case you’re wondering).City of Ember is set at some not-so-distant point in the future when humans, desperate to flee an unnamed, aboveground disaster, flee underground into a well-stocked city. The Builders leave instructions for egress from the City of Ember with the newly appointed mayor. Given a metal lockbox with a timer counting down 200 years in the future, the lockbox is passed from mayor to mayor. The chain is broken, however, when the seventh mayor dies without leaving it to his instructor. The box, along with the instructions it contains, becomes just one more artifact from a distant past, tossed in a closet and promptly forgotten.
"One of Walden Media's better adaptations of YA literature."
Two hundred and forty-one years after the founding of Ember, the city is in near ruin. The water-powered generator requires constant repairs and the pipeworks that provide the city’s water supplies threaten to give way at any time. While the current mayor of Ember (Bill Murray) assures his nervous, anxious constituents that Ember will be fine, not everyone takes him at his word. Loris Harrow (Tim Robbins), a repair shop owner, suspects the power outages will become permanent, leaving Ember literally in the dark. Outside the City of Ember lies the Unknown Regions and perpetual darkness. Harrow’s son, Doon (Harry Treadaway), eager to help Ember by repairing the generator, looks forward to Assignment Day, a yearly ritual in which teenagers choose their vocations from a hat.
Doon doesn’t get what he wants, a position as an electrician’s helper (he gets a job as a messenger), but another student, Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan), gets the next best thing, a pipeworks assistant. At Doon’s suggestion, they trade jobs. Doon goes to work at the pipeworks, assisting the elderly Sul (Martin Landau), while Lina gladly begins her new position, relaying verbal messages from one part of Ember to another. Lina becomes suspicious when she delivers a message from Looper (Mackenzie Crook) to the mayor that suggests the mayor knows more about Ember’s problems than he’s letting on. Doon quickly discovers that the pipeworks are in horrible shape. His attempts to gain access to the generator room fail. At home, Lina’s younger sister, Poppy (Amy and Catherine Quinn), discovers the now open metal lockbox, and makes a meal out of the written instructions.
As first, a novel, and now, a film, City of Ember owes a great deal to post-apocalyptic fiction, specifically Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and his Dog and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (the idea for a post-nuclear underground city is probably older). What City of Ember doesn’t have when it comes to originality, however, it more than makes up through Jeanne Duprau, Gil Kenan, and Caroline Thompson’s meticulous world building. Credit, of course, also goes to Kenan’s production designer, Martin Laing (the forthcoming Terminator: Salvation), for creating a believable, dilapidated underground city, including the pipeworks and the massive generator room.
World building can only take you so far, though. Luckily, Kenan and Thompson made sure to provide moviegoers with credible, likable characters in Lina and Doon as well as a story that moves at a rapid clip that eschews exposition for action. If City of Ember has any faults, it’s in the rushed, seemingly inconclusive ending. It’s not, as City of Ember is the first in a series (it’s been followed by a sequel and a prequel). Moviegoers familiar with the novel might be disappointed in some of the liberties taken with the source material, especially the seemingly disparate ages of the co-lead characters. Neither looks like they’re twelve (their ages in the novel). Saoirse Ronan looks 13 or 14 and Harry Treadaway appears to be 16 or 17. He’s too old for Assignment Day and as Lina’s chaste romantic interest. Then too, Kenan and Thompson keep the Emberites on the pale side. All the lead roles, with one exception, Lina’s friend Clary (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a “magical Negro” if there ever was one, distinctly lack color.Just as importantly, at least from the perspective of anyone following Walden Media’s adaptations of children’s literature, "City of Ember" doesn’t have the usual heavy-handed sermonizing or pro-authority, pro-faith message. If anything, "City of Ember’s" themes tend toward the progressive or even the subversive. Lina and Doon both defy the mayor, a venal, corrupt authority figure who argues for willful ignorance or blindness as the best (and only) response to the impending destruction of Ember. Lina and Doon question authority, think for themselves (and think of the well being of others), and act accordingly. Unlike other Emberites, including a small group who pray for deliverance by the Builders (false gods, assuredly) and do nothing, Lina and Doon do everything to find answers and save themselves and the Emberites from certain doom. If that’s not a message worth conveying through popular literature or film, it’s hard to know what is.
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originally posted: 10/10/08 10:00:00