City Of Ember (2008)

DVD Cover (Twentieth Century Fox)
Gil Kenan Gil Kenan
Saoirse Ronan Saoirse Ronan
David Ryall David Ryall
Harry Treadaway Harry Treadaway
Mary Kay Place Mary Kay Place
Tim Robbins Tim Robbins

6.5 / 10 - Overall Rating

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Genres: Children's / Family, Children's Fantasy, Fantasy Adventure
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Review by bluemeanie
Added: October 15, 2008
Whatever happened to the 'event' directors? Filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and Ivan Reitman spent years making large-scale adventure pictures that would always start out as must-see entertainment for the year. You could always count on plenty of special effects, plenty of sight gags and plenty of chases and tumbles and explosions and death-defying acts. This style of filmmaking was at its peak in the 1980's, with Spielberg using his name recognition to value-up just about every memorable picture to come about, from "The Goonies" to "Back to the Future". We don't see films like that anymore. These days, indie cinema is where it's at. Films that cost less than a Toyota to produce are automatically given more credibility than a film that costs 10,000 Toyotas to produce. Why? It's the public perception of what makes a film great. Personally, it doesn't matter to me whether a film costs $100,000 or $100,000,000 - it's the quality of the story and the execution of that story that matters. Spielberg has been defying those odds for years and years, and I miss his brand of 'event' filmmaking. "City of Ember" is a throwback to those days when popcorn value meant just as much as 'indie street cred'. It's a film that strives to be larger than it can be, and it suffers for that - but it still manages to pack in some adventure.

Based on the popular book by Jeanne Duprau, "City of Ember" starts off at the end of the world as we know it - we assume from nuclear devastation. A group of people known as 'The Builders' have constructed an elaborate underground city that they have programmed to sustain life for 200 years, hoping that the fallout will have ended by then. Then place a secret set of instructions in a metal case and pass it down from mayor to mayor, over the years. Along the way, however, the citizens of Ember - the city they created - lose touch with their past and the case gets misplaced. Flash forward 200 years and the large generator that powers Ember is slowly starting to fail, causing serious blackouts all over the city. Doon (Harry Treadaway) thinks he knows how to fix it, but is afraid he would be given anything close to the generator on Assignment Day, which is when the town's mayor (Bill Murray) draws jobs out of a hat for the kids. Doon's dad (Tim Robbins) wants his son to be happy, but doesn't like it when he starts talking about leaving Ember. Lina (Saoirse Ronan) has found the misplaced metal case and is trying to solve its mystery, with the help of Doon, hoping it will unlock the secrets of Ember's past and allow them to have a future. Toby Jones stars as the mayor's assistant and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as a greenhouse owner who tries to help Doon and Lina as best she can. The last chunk of this film deals with Doon and Lina discovering the secrets of Ember and finding their way out. Other notable supporting characters include the great Martin Landau as Sul, a Pipeworks worker and Mary Kay Place as a religious nut.

There is so much story here, the film really needed to be longer. Some of the cuts seem a little forced and you have to think that director Gil Kenan wasn't able to elaborate on a lot of what he wanted to because of time constrictions. "City of Ember" could have easily been either a three hour film or a two or three part series of films. I think it deserved that kind of consideration because the story is there and it works and it's very entertaining. There is nothing wrong on that end. What damages the film is the last third of the picture, which turns from compelling science fiction film to a ride at DisneyWorld. The opening half-hour of this film was flawless and it really sucked me into the story and into the lives of these characters. Slowly, along the way, it loses us, through one CGI-induced chase sequence after another. We were given such a gorgeous set design and such a colorful set of characters - it's a shame they weren't put to better use. Bill Murray is hysterical as the seedy mayor of Ember; Martin Landau is wonderful as Sul, the crusty old worker who does his job and nothing more; and Tim Robbins as the curious yet cautious father. And there were so many neat little tidbits here and there that helped jazz up the visuals. I love how the messengers are used in the film and I loved how Lina plays the answering machine tape for comfort. Maybe if Kenan had made the film a little darker and played up the science fiction elements more, it might have been a more solid effort and not shifted into a roller coaster at the end of the picture. Or, maybe there is a better cut of this film out there and the studios just hacked and shredded it to pieces.

It would seem that this story deserves a darker adaptation. The themes themselves are somewhat frightening. We can only assume Ember's existence is the result of nuclear devastation and we can only assume that, apart from the people in Ember - everyone else is dead. These are dark themes for a children's film and book and maybe it would have served the material better to push towards a PG-13 rating instead and just go for it. I wanted to see more attention paid to the toll of the blackouts on the citizens. I wanted to see more dissension once Doon and Lina tried to escape - more with the townspeople disbelieving them and trying to keep them from leaving. I wanted that set of instructions to be a little more difficult to figure out. Everything just fell together a little too easily at the end of the film and we're left wondering what has kept someone from figuring any of this out before. I know there was a lack of curiosity in the city while everything was working right, but you have to think that some of these citizens had to be pretty intelligent. Why couldn't Lina's father figure out what the stuff inside the box meant? There are a lot of these questions that could have been answered with a more mature tackling of the subject matter. If the rest of the film had matched the first half-hour of the film, it would easily be one of the best of the year.

So, there we have it - an entertaining film that could have been so much more. It disappoints me because I think Gil Kenan is one of those 'event' filmmakers I mentioned earlier. He has the same eye for that stuff as Spielberg and Zemeckis did. "Monster House" was a fine example of that and I was hoping for big things from "City of Ember". And I still think Kenan has some tricks up his sleeves. Maybe the studio hacked his original vision to death? This film was in limbo for a while and its release has been delayed a little, so maybe that's the explanation. I would rather blame a studio editor than a competent director any day of the week. "City of Ember" was thrilling and the first half-hour alone is enough for me to recommend the film, but I wanted more from this picture and was not satisfied with how everything just kind of fell together at the end. The film bombed at the box office this past weekend, but it didn't deserve that. I think younger kids would definitely enjoy this picture and I think it's better than a lot of junk you probably let them see. "City of Ember" started off bright, but burned out by the end. It needed more gasoline.

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