The Apocalypse has been adapted for the younger set in the film version of Jeanne Duprau's novel, City of Ember, a movie with a look that is a cross between something from the minds of Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. That is the impression I got of this city lit by an extensive series of light bulbs and seemingly built on all manner of contraptions and gizmos. I am also reminded a bit of the steam punk look of The Golden Compass.
Unfortunately, this is a film that simply collapses under the weight of its possibilities. On the surface, it is an interesting tale of hope in a land of increasing depression and fear, but if you dig into it and try to make sense of it all you will be left scratching your head while wondering what the filmmakers were thinking.
The movie has a strong opening where we learn that the planet is not doing too well. In an effort to save humanity a city is built deep beneath the Earth's surface. The city has also been given an expiration date, on which people will be able to return to the surface and rejoin humanity, or whatever may be left. Instructions for an exit are sealed within a box that is entrusted to the city's first mayor, to be handed down from mayor to mayor until the big digital readout reaches zero and the box opens.
The opening sequence shows the brief discussion of the box as it is being given to the mayor, and the subsequent passing of the box from one mayor to the next. All goes well until something tragic happens and the box is lost and forgotten, ticking down to the end with no one paying attention.
The tale is picked up once the countdown reaches zero. Its opening coincides with ominous signs that the city is in trouble. Power outages are beginning to occur with increased frequency and duration, frightening the populace. Among the people, there are two youngsters who seem to have a better idea of the dangers that lie ahead. They also happen to be the only two with a desire to find out what is going on, try to stop whatever it is, and find a way to save everyone.
The plot moves forward in a rapid fashion, with the intrepid kids uncovering the box, exploring the pipeworks beneath the city, and piecing together the clues that point towards an escape from the underground city.
Saorise Ronan (Academy Award nominee for Atonement) is Lina Mayfleet, a messenger who uncovers the box containing the deteriorating instructions. She teams up with Doon Harrow, played by Harry Treadaway, a young pipeworker's assistant who believes he knows how to fix the generator if he could spend some time with it.
City of Ember is a generally upbeat film with touches of suspense, clue-hunting, and adventure. It will likely find an enthusiastic audience among the young at whom it is aimed, but I was left needing more. The society needed some more meat to make the story more interesting.
This community could be seen as an allegory for current society. Government seems to be clueless as to how to deal with issues, content to try and save its own hide. There are overtones of the caste system, modified and turned into Assignment Day. What is the deal with that? Is there some age at which you become eligible? Or perhaps an education level? It does not seem that there was any requirement based on the lineup that was there. There was also a disturbing lack of intelligence in many of the adult characters; they all seemed more content to hold firm with the status quo than to shake anything up. This extends to technology — while one character is shown to be an inventor of sorts, we get more who have the "it's not my job" attitude. The level of technology seems rather lax for 200 years of development, plus whatever the city builders' and founders' had. No development of batteries or computers have left the city in the dark, so to speak. I mean, this society could not have been completely closed off, as I doubt all of the original inhabitants were born there.
Perhaps I am looking for too much in a film that barely crosses the 90-minute mark. There are some movies where I can overlook things like this, but for some reason they really bothered me and resulted in bringing the movie as whole down. I found my mind wandering, wondering why, allowing myself to be taken out by the lack of big picture logic in favor of small world wonder.
Gil Kenan's first live action direction is not terrible, and I would like to see him work with more solid material, like he did with his animated debut Monster House. The problem here lies squarely on the screenplay by Caroline Thompson. It is undeveloped and moves just a bit too fast.
To its credit, I really enjoyed the opening setup with the voice over and explanation of the box. I also enjoyed the closing moments, that was not quite what I expected, and I liked the overtones of hope over what could have been a very bleak close.
One last thing. I know this based on a book, one which I have not read. I am fairly certain that more information is in the book and may very well be quite good, but saying that I need to read the book to understand the movie is not a valid argument, the movie needs to be able to stand on its own.
Bottom line. I wanted to like the movie, but it left way too many questions behind to truly enjoy. It is not terrible by any stretch, and I am sure the kids will enjoy the fast paced adventure, I just couldn't.