A young-adult movie for our calamitous age, City of Ember, based on the novel by Jeanne DuPrau, starts with the end of the world as we know it and goes on from there.
Billed as a rip-snorting adventure, it's more like a feverish middle-schooler's waking nightmare. It's lumpy, odd and tonally all over the place, but its vision gets to you, and its payoff delivers a tough kid's catharsis.
The film begins with the snap-to-attention brusqueness of a judge's gavel. The wise men and women who build the subterranean city of Ember - they're known as "The Builders" - don't want the remnants of humanity to obsess over everything that's been destroyed or left behind during an unspecified apocalypse. They give the first mayor of Ember a box filled with instructions to pass down to his successors; they set a time lock that will open it 200 years later. The Builders hope that by then the atmosphere will clear and people will emerge from Ember's artificial light into the sun.
Leap ahead two centuries, and the underground metropolis borders on catastrophe because the seventh mayor broke the chain of continuity and abused and hid the box. The generator that keeps Ember alive has been spluttering. Only the intrepid young Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) and his alert, nimble friend Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) intend to escape the slow death of their home city and discover whether it's true that outside Ember, all is darkness.
It may sound irretrievably gloomy and doomy - and the movie could use quicker wits and fleeter feet - but City of Ember boasts a loony originality that grows on you. The director, Gil Kenan, who made the computer-animated hit Monster House, gives Ember itself a higgledy-piggledy design that's engaging, not alienating in the now-cliched Blade Runner manner.
It's like a village from a Germanic fairy tale crossed with a gothic, Depression-era Gotham. It's filled with tenements, warehouses and deteriorating civic facades with a retro-futuristic feel, like attractions from the 1939 World's Fair. Kenan lights the whole spread with flickering Edison-era bulbs. What holds it together are pipe works and wiring almost as cluttered as the colored yarn that crisscrosses the home of Mayfleet's Granny (Liz Smith), who attaches Lina's little sister to a distinct blue thread so she doesn't get lost.
Everything in the movie seems handmade, and thus organic and artificial at the same time. Harrow's father, Loris (Tim Robbins), for example, is an inventor whose contraptions resemble junkyard sculptures. Amid the chaos, the movie has a core phobia holding the fantasy together: our fear of the dark. Even when City of Ember ventures into the realm of creature features, Kenan knows how to imbue it with the dark, playful mood of a carnival fun-house. One man-eating creature with a head full of slimy red tentacles atop jaws of death may seem extreme to parents. It's really just a slightly more jocular version of the reptilian mutants that children watch on the SciFi Channel when their guardians aren't looking.
Caroline Thompson designed the script around the instructions in the box, which with deterioration have become a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. City of Ember's mysteries are more like curiosities, but they're just intriguing enough to compel us to follow Harrow and Mayfleet as they sort them out.
In the most amusing scene, Ember teens line up to get their assigned jobs - Harrow and Mayfleet swap so that he can toil in the pipe works, close to the generator he craves to inspect, and she can be a messenger, carrying personal vows and public business far and wide on her long runner's legs. Treadaway (Control) has a moody urgency and Ronan (Atonement) a direct emotional authority that help pull the movie along.
The film generates a healthy disrespect for bogus authority like that of the vague and platitudinous current mayor (Bill Murray, livelier than usual these days) and a healthier respect for figures who earn their authority, such as Harrow's dad. (Robbins seems to be in a good, restrained phase these days.)
Kenan doesn't know how to unify his ensemble, but there are pleasant surprises, such as the always wonderful Mary Kay Place, who glows as a woman who lives for Ember's supposedly uplifting day of group singing. City of Ember is nothing to sing about, but it's nothing to sneer at, either.
City of Ember
(Fox Walden) Starring Saoirse Ronan, Tim Robbins, Bill Murray. Directed by Gil Kenan. Rated PG for some scary sequences. Time 96 minutes.
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