Science fiction and fantasy                                            

City Of Ember

directed by Gil Kenan

City of Ember poster  
Most of us take sunlight and open spaces for granted. For the citizens of Ember who live deep underground, both light and space are a luxury. The city was constructed by people known as the Builders in order to guard humanity against an unnamed threat. The Builders left instructions in a special box which was to be opened after 200 years, but the box was forgotten and its significance was lost with the passing of time.

Ember has a kind of shabby steampunk look. Messengers in colourful red uniforms weave between grimy windows and great, rusting machines, whilst blue-clad choristers sing in the streets. The city is crumbling as the vast generators that power it begin to fail. Frequent blackouts plague the city, and as each one lasts just a bit longer than the previous one it looks as though the lights will go out for good.

Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) is a young man with a goal. He's determined to find a way to fix the generators, and he thinks that he'll be able to find a solution to the problems if he can work with them. So he's deeply disappointed when he's assigned a job elsewhere. Meanwhile Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) eagerly embraces the role of messenger, a job that allows her to run everywhere and know everybody else's business. The two of them soon learn that matters are worse than they imagined, and the decaying city won't sustain people for much longer. The rotund Mayor Cole (Bill Murray) tells everyone that "Ours is the only light in a dark world." Yet no-one is quite sure what lies beyond Ember, and why trying to leave the city is outlawed.

City Of Ember could easily have been far more oppressive and claustrophobic than it is. There are anxious, hungry people confined in an underground setting, living according to rigid laws and with the imminent threat of destruction hanging over them. But this is nevertheless a fairly child-friendly movie, and rather more thrilling than terrifying. It features giant insects, moles the size of a cow, unusual mechanical contraptions and hidden passages, like an adventure based on a theme-park ride.

The film starts off well enough with strong central characters who have reached a defining moment in their lives. But the story lacks detail. By the end it seems as though you've watched the edited highlights or an extended trailer, rather than a complete movie. Lots of questions are left unanswered.

The main mystery about what drove people underground in the first place could really have been explored in a lot more detail. On top of that there are all sorts of facets of subterranean living that get missed out. Why don't the people suffer from rickets? Why isn't it hotter so deep underground? Why are the insects and other creatures so large? These may be small details on their own, but they add up to a great big fuzzy blur where a clear, believable picture should be.

City Of Ember has likeable young leads and a good measure of special effects sparkle. But it falls short when it comes to perhaps the most important element in any movie: telling the story.

Film Details

Year: 2008

Categories: Films

  Kids     Science fiction

Classification: PG

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Review © Ros Jackson