>> Fantastic Fest Closing Night Film: City of Ember

For roughly forty minutes of running time, City of Ember looks to be the film that succeeds where the other potential kids’ fantasy franchises have failed.  Right out of the gate, City of Ember shows a maturity of filmmaking not wholly evident in The Golden Compass, Eragon, The Seeker, or a host of other contenders to the Harry Potter crown.  Then, things get convoluted.  Character motivations are ignored.  Plot points are thrown wholesale out of the window.  Suspension of disbelief is eroded.  What City of Ember ends up being is a middling kid’s adventure, not particularly better or worse than anything else, but the sting of its failure hurts a little more, since it offers so much promise initially.

Ember is an underground community, ran by an uscrupulous, lazy mayor (played by an apathetic Bill Murray), whose source of power is going out after providing its citizens with 200 years worth of electricity.  The founders of Ember, back when they were originally forced underground by an underexplained catastrophe, created a falisafe in such an event–a detailed, puzzle-like plan to get the citizens above ground once the surface world returned to normal.  As the film begins, the plans have been lost through time, but rediscovered by a young girl named Lina (Atonement‘s Saoirse Ronan) who finds an ally in Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway), a hard-working dissident who believes that Ember has a real energy crisis on its hands, long before anyone else does.

It’s a great set-up, a great cast, great sets and production design, but not a great movie.  What went wrong here?  Most of the fault lies in the script from Caroline Thompson, a script that never gives motivation to key conflicts that the protagonists face.  It’s never fully explained why they are underground to begin with, what happened to the other humans, or why something as important as a government-established suitcase full of escape plans was completely forgotten about after roughly four generations.  It’s never explained why there are giant animals, why sometimes they appear to our characters to be mysterious deviations of nature and, at other times, simply the way all animals are now.  Why does Ember’s government try to prevent anyone from finding out there’s an answer to their energy problem?  What do they have to gain?  These are issues that come up as plot points in the film, but with no rhyme or reason.

About halfway through City of Ember, I realized I pretty much had no idea WHY anything was happening.  I knew WHAT was happening–the kids were running from the bad guys, trying to get to the surface–but I didn’t know why the bad guys were bad guys, or why no adults would help them, or why the council would originally turn every action to get to the surface into a series of complicated puzzles.  I was confused, and, honestly, City of Ember made me feel stupid.  I thought I wasn’t paying attention, that I had missed some key elements along the way.  Nuh-uh.  They just simply are not there.

Can I recommend a movie that is one-half fantastic and one-half undercooked?  Director Gil Kenan (Monster House)  still proves to be a talent to follow.  He knows that adventure works best when the protagonists are in danger, no matter how young those protagonists might be.  He knows that a little imagination goes a long way, and, in City of Ember‘s case a lot of imagination might be just enough to make you overlook the canyon-sized plot holes.  The truth is that I want to love the second half of City of Ember as much as the first half, and I just can’t.

6.5 on a 1 to 10 scale



  1. Perfect review. I couldn’t have said it any better, so I’m not gonna.
    I was also a little confused as to how Lina and Doon got so high up to the surface. It seemed like they kept going downward with their entrance into the generator room, and then further down on the water rollercoaster. The steps they finally get to do go up, but they didn’t seem to go up as high as the final shot makes it look.

  2. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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