City of Ember (2008) — A light in the deep apocalyptic dark

“We stand united against the darkness.”

Lissa’s rating: The costume people raided the old Battlestar Galactica wardrobes, I think.

Lissa’s review: Fantasy gets a bad rap for some reason, especially among the movie-going public. Unless it’s preceded by Harry Potter and the…, fantasy movies almost always get lukewarm reviews. Oh, sure, you have your exceptions, like Pan’s Labyrinth. But in general, the critics and so many people just don’t like fantasy. Now, me, I love fantasy, so it’s only natural that I’m going to say what I say next: I just don’t get that. Why are magic and dragons and all that considered so much more unbelievable than the lifestyles on Sex In the City? Okay, maybe I can answer that, but why are fantasy novels deemed so irrelevant by so many people?

Well they are, and it’s a shame, because when a movie like City of Ember comes out, it gets lambasted as boring and trite, and really, I found it to be neither. I’m not saying it’s a work of cinematic genius, but I am saying that I really enjoyed it and would see it again in a heartbeat, as long as there was nothing else playing I wanted to spend money on. (Obligatory fantasy statement: I have not yet read the book, so I have no idea how loyal an adaptation it is.)

City of Ember takes place in an underground city after humanity has devolved into nuclear winter. It’s a pretty fascinating premise, and actually a little reminiscent of the Noah’s Ark idea I liked in Deep Impact. However, in the two hundred years that the survivors and their descendants have been down here, some things have gone wrong. For one, the city’s infrastructure is starting to go. But the bigger thing is the Escape Plan – and the whole reason for being down here in the first place – was lost when one of the Mayors of Ember died unexpectedly. But no one really knows that, since it was kept in a locked box, so the crumbling infrastructure (particularly the generator) is of more interest to the townspeople.

So, enter Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway). Doon wants to work with the generator, but he has to accept the job he’s given. In a typical dystopian future society move, jobs are not selected but assigned. In this case, children pull them out of a hat. Doon is assigned the job of messenger, which he promptly swaps with his friend Lina (Saoirse Ronan) for a pipe worker’s job. As the two begin to fit themselves into their roles, they both happen across important clues for the survival of humanity. And of course there’s a villain who wants to stop them – Mayor Cole (Bill Murray, lazily doing a little scenery chewing).

What captivated me the most about City of Ember was the world that was created. I always like seeing worlds that have some grounding in our society, but have some interesting laws, structures, or stories born out of the circumstances. The film makers did a pretty seamless job introducing us to that world without too much clunky exposition. The city of Ember came to life quite nicely, and although I was left with some hanging questions that may or may not be cleared up in either the books or the sequels, they were minor and not too distracting. It was interesting to see how the people dealt with their dwindling resources, and I’ve gotta say, apocalyptic fiction with a bit of hope is always fun.

To be specific, I think one of the things that made City of Ember so appealing and human to me was Lina’s home situation. Like all good fantasy heroines, Lina is an orphan. However, instead of being fairly carefree or tied to an abusive family, Lina lives with her three year old sister and her grandmother, who seems to be succumbing to Alzheimer’s. The way Lina copes with that – and heck, even the situation – just made her very real to me.

The plot is somewhat predictable, yes, but I’m cynical enough these days to say so many movie plots are. You know how it will end, but how you get there… see, that’s where I think fantasy is underrated, because the hows have the potential to be so interesting. And in this case, they are. I mean, not completely unexpected, turn-on-your-head unexpected, but still pretty inventive and fun. It was the kind of thing where you can put your feet up and enjoy it and not recite the dialogue a half a beat before the characters do, but not watch on the edge of your seat, either.

If you are looking for swinging swords and lots of action, you’ll probably be disappointed. But I think that’s a fantasy stereotype, and one that’s often quite limiting. There isn’t a lot of action, but I don’t think there really needs to be. The exploration of this society and the implications that we’re left to ponder are interesting enough.

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