Like great books, great movies can take you to new worlds, expand your horizons, and captivate your soul. “City of Ember” is not only a book for young adults, it’s now a film that is everything a movie for all ages should be. “City of Ember” manages not only to hold your attention, but it stirs your imagination and touches on emotions without being too sentimental or heavy-handed.
Ember is a city built beneath the Earth that’s been running on a generator for 200 years. The builders who built the intricate city did so “for the good of all mankind”, with the hope that in 200 years the surface of the earth would be inhabitable once more. They not only built the city, but they left instructions and a key for the Mayor of Ember to use by the time 200 years was up, as they only intended for the generator to last that long. With time, the box of instructions was misplaced and the city went on living in the dark, beneath a sky of lights.
200 years is up and the generator is breaking down. Lights keep going out, and each time the blackouts last longer than before. The people of Ember are running out of food, water, and means necessary for survival. Living in the City of Ember is Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) and his dad, Loris Harrow (Tim Robbins) who likes to invent things that look less than perfect. On the day of Doon’s graduation, Loris gives his son a contraption that he insists has a purpose. Doon is more concerned with the failing generator than his dad’s inventions, and so he runs off to discover what his future job will be in hopes of getting near the generator.
Also graduating is Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) who takes care of her ailing grandmother and her little sister, Poppy. Lina, like Doon, is concerned about the blackouts and fearful what the future holds for the City of Ember. Together, Doon and Lina explore all the available possibilities of rescuing their city, and better yet, finding a way out. It’s Lina who discovers the builder’s box of instructions and with Doon she pieces together their meaning. Along they way, they run into trouble with the Mayor of Ember (Bill Murray) who has secrets of his own that will completely change their view of their leaders who they - and the other people of Ember - followed so obediently.
“City of Ember” moves quickly through its 95 minutes, but the picture does offer some subtler moments and surprises - even the ending is something new to this genre of film, and it’s a welcomed change. Adults will appreciate the story and motivation by Lina and Doon’s quest, and children will enjoy the quest itself. It’s the combination of adult emotions and situations with childlike beliefs and determination that set “City of Ember” apart from so many other young adult films today.
Director Gil Kenan (“Monster House”) did an excellent job bringing to life a story that is rich in character, atmosphere, and plot. The sets used here are exactly what you would imagine and underground city would be like, and they, along with the color palette used, offer an otherworldly feel while maintaining a very simple look. It’s a wonder that “City of Ember” didn’t have more press, as it offers a fantastic cast (Ronan and Treadaway are perfect as the determined teenagers, and Robbins and Murray offer memorable performances), moves at a rapid clip and a strong visual style. Not only does it touch on several issues, it manages to do so while maintaining a wonderful combination of believability and true wonderment. "City" barely got any attention when it was released theatrically last year, but hopefully the film will attract a bigger following on DVD.
VIDEO: "City of Ember" is presented by 20th Century Fox in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The screening copy of the film that was provided offered average image quality, with inconsistent sharpness/detail and some mild instances of pixelation and shimmer. However, this is still not the final copy and unfortunately, I cannot make any final comments on it, as the retail copy may offer differing image quality.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation sounded terrific, with surrounds kicking in on a number of occasions to provide mild ambience and occasional sound effects. Audio quality was first-rate, with clear dialogue and well-recorded effects.
EXTRAS: The only special features included on the “City of Ember” DVD are trailers for “Labou”, “Angel Wars: The Messengers” and “Garfield’s Pet Force”. I would have loved to see more bonus features, especially ones that focused on the incredible set design, as well as translating the book to film.
Final Thoughts: "City of Ember" is an engaging, thoughtful family sci-fi adventure that boasts excellent performances and a superb script. Recommended.
The Film B+