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City of Ember
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by Peter Sobczynski

1 stars

Pardon my French, but exactly when did movies aimed primarily at family audiences become so goddamned complicated? Back in my day, family movies generally contained one simple and easy-to-understand premise or gimmick--a place-kicking mule, a Volkswagen with a mind and heart of its own, a local government official who occasionally found himself transformed into a sheepdog and chased through roller rinks by the likes of Tim Conway and JoAnne Worley--and we were happy with that. (Okay, maybe we weren’t exactly “happy” in the classic sense of the word, but we were at least more or less content.) Nowadays, it seems as if every kid-oriented story hitting the multiplex these days comes along chock-full of clever puzzles, tricky riddles and elaborately detailed backstories of the kind that used to only be seen in old Russian novels. Okay, I will admit that my initial query is more than a bit disingenuous since it is obvious that it was the mammoth success of the complexly constructed “Harry Potter” books and films that inspired the current crop of confusing kiddie cinema. However, what the vast majority of these pretenders tend to forget is that while J.K. Rowling did lard all of these elaborate details into her narratives, they were always in the service of her well-told stories and well-drawn characters. Without those valuable items, these stories run the risk of being nothing more than sloppy, boring and deeply confusing mishmashes in which the clunky backstories wind up overwhelming the thin and uninteresting central narratives. In other words, they run the risk of turning out like “City of Ember,” a loud, depressing and confusing franchise-starter that is just as murky, corrupt and exhausted as the post-apocalyptic world that it depicts

In the elaborately detailed prologue that kicks off the story (a common narrative device in films of this type), we learn that at some indeterminate point in the future, the world as we know it is coming to the end as the result of some indeterminate event. (Based on the politics and philosophy of the film, I am guessing that this particular apocalypse occurs sometime between November 4 of this year and January 20, 2009.) Luckily, a team of scientists, architects and other smart people, collectively known as The Builders, were thinking ahead and they designed and built an elaborate underground city known as Ember--which looks like what might have resulted if the cities from “Brazil” and “Dogville” had been forced to breed--that would sustain human life for the next 200 years. When that time elapsed, a time-locked suitcase, a piece of hardware passed on from one mayor of Ember to the next, the machine would open with instructions for the populace to return to the Earth’s surface and resettle the planet. However, in a development that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, the box is mislaid and forgotten about and when the story proper picks up, Ember is way past its shelf life and the enormous generator that is keeping the city running is clearly on its last legs. Alas, the current mayor (Bill Murray) is a self-centered loaf who is more concerned with stuffing his own face with hoarded cans of food from Ember’s dwindling reserves than in aiding his people. Luckily for him, the people of Ember are so used to living in squalor that they barely seem to notice or care that their way of life is quickly coming to an end.

In other words, this looks like a perfect opportunity for a spunky and seemingly ordinary kid to suddenly emerge and show the kind of intelligence and true grit necessary to save the world from disaster. This time around, we have two and we are introduced to them during a ceremony in which they are assigned the jobs that they will have for the rest of their lives. Doon Barlow (Harry Treadaway) is the ambitious son of a former inventor (Tim Robbins) who yearns to get into the generator and repair it but is stuck working as a pipeworker under the tutelage of the ancient Sul (Martin Landau) while Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) is assigned to serve as a messenger girl (which may strike some as an ironic choice if they recall all the trouble Ronan inspired when she was asked to deliver a message in “Atonement”). Anyway, the two stumble upon the suitcase and begin to piece together the escape route from clues that they discover but when they try to tell the mayor, he tries to have them arrested in order to keep the information secret--after all, if the population does somehow make it to the surface, the rezoning that would occur as a result might do great harm to his reelection hopes. Naturally, they escape--in movies like this, armies of hulking goons are always helpless when facing a couple of spunky teens--and with Lina’s adorable little sister in tow, they set off to find the escape route and see what, if anything, lies behind the borders of Ember.

There are all sorts of mysteries being raised and unraveled throughout “City of Ember“ (based on the youth novel but Jeanne Durpau) but the biggest one by far is the question of who this film is supposed to be made for in the first place. I can’t imagine any kids really being entertained by it--it moves at a snail’s pace and after a while, it becomes little more than a series of scenes in which our heroes are either slopping through muck, peering down one dimly-lit tunnel after another or struggling to open some type of door or hatch. Adults are unlikely to embrace it either because the characters aren’t very interesting (after seeing her acclaimed performance in “Atonement,” it is somewhat disconcerting to see the talented Ronan take two steps back in order to appear in material like this that is clearly beneath her talents), the story is little more than a dumbed-down mix of such classics as “THX 1138,” “Logan’s Run” and “Dark City” and the religious symbolism thrown in here and there is so heavy-handed at times that it will inspire only giggles from certain viewers. As for fans of Bill Murray or Tim Robbins, they will be disappointed to discover that their contributions are little more than extended cameo appearances. Of the two, Robbins acquits himself decently enough but Murray coasts through his part with all the energy and enthusiasm that Orson Welles used to bring to the cheapo schlock that he used to appear in during the latter days of his career in order to score some quick cash to finance his own projects--in other words, zilch.

However, the most disappointing aspect of “City of Ember” has to be the fact that it was directed by Gil Kenan, making his first film since his 2006 animated debut “Monster House.” That was another film that was aimed mostly at younger viewers but which managed to contain enough elements to keep older audiences entertained as well. It had a smart and well-crafted story, the characters were likable and interesting and the film was jam-packed with humor, excitement and even a few legitimately creepy moments as well--pretty much everything that one could hope for in an family-oriented film. The success of that project presumably helped to win him the gig of directing “Ember” but whether the off-beat sensibilities that he displayed there were deliberately tempered down by producers looking for something a little more formulaic (it was produced by Fox after all) or whether he is one of those directors who isn’t as comfortable with live actors as he is with animated ones, the combination simply doesn’t quite work. This film contains none of the humor or excitement of “Monster House” and the few instances in which he tries to spook viewers (such as an attack involving some bizarre monster that is never really explained) are too intense for younger viewers and too silly for older ones. Because of the brilliance of “Monster House,” I wouldn’t go so far as to write Keenan off as a one-hit wonder quite yet but based on his work here, I would recommend that his next project be something that allows his considerable creative vision to be used for something new and different instead of being shoehorned into replicating someone else’s.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17284&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/10/08 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2008 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2008 series, click here.

User Comments

9/28/12 roscoe PASSABLE. 3 stars
9/22/10 bored mom Saoirse Ronan may be cute as Lina, but screw the rough pacing. Stick with the book. 3 stars
9/17/09 Lisa Song We loved this movie and thought it wonderfully crafted! 5 stars
2/04/09 Faraz J Enterntaining. Thats all a movie has to be. 5 stars
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  10-Oct-2008 (PG)
  DVD: 20-Jan-2009


  DVD: 20-Jan-2009

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