Ember shows faith in action

City of Ember
United States, 2008
Directed By: Gil Kenan
Written By: Caroline Thompson, from the novel by Jeanne Duprau
Starring: Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Toby Jones, Saoirse Ronin, Harry Treadaway
Running Time: 95 min.
Rated PG for mild peril and some thematic elements
4 out of 5 stars
Like all of the best films to have come from the family-oriented Walden Media (such as Because of Winn-Dixie, the Narnia series, and Holes), City of Ember turns out to be a ponderous, somber meditation on faith. You’ll be forgiven if that doesn’t sound like the sort of film your kids will want to see, and I don’t expect it to do all that well at the box office, but more’s the pity: City of Ember is likely to be one of the best films of the fall season.

Based on the novel by Jeanne Duprau (which won the 2006 Mark Twain Award), City of Ember takes place in the titular city, an underground network of tunnels and apartments that has been humanity’s only hope since the apocalypse (which the film mentions but doesn’t elaborate on). It’s been two centuries since the city was sealed off, and the secret of how to escape has been lost to time. The complacency of the citizens (even as the city crumbles around them) leaves the quest up to a pair of young teens: a girl named Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronin) and a boy named Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway).

The rest of the film follows their adventures, some of which are more interesting than others. Much of the criticism that has been leveled against the film has been the standard A.D.H.D.-inspired complaints about the plot lagging or failing to generate tension. It’s a point that I can’t really argue with, but in the context of this film it’s hardly relevant. Plot, character, and adventure are all present to one degree or another, but none of them has anything to do with what City of Ember is really about, which is the obsessive creation of a world.

Neither Lina nor Doon is really the main character of the film; the star here is Ember itself. For the production of the film, the underground city was meticulously built in a shipyard (the one where the H.M.S. Titanic was built, appropriately enough), and the cast essentially lived there during the shooting. On screen it comes to life through a mixture of the sets, CGI, and matte paintings, but the effect is seamless: Ember is real. Every inch of this crumbling city tells a story, and every one of them is tragic. Every pavement crack, dilapidated statue, and flickering light echoes with what could have been (and what was).

In the context of the film, Ember becomes a haunting metaphor for the human soul: given nothing to do but survive, it simply rots from the inside out. As the corrupt and ineffective Mayor of Ember, Bill Murray is perfectly cast: Murray the brilliant actor/comedian is still burning within, but the years, I’m sorry to say, have not been kind to him. His body looks like it is literally falling apart. (I’m not sure how much of this was costuming and makeup, but he doesn’t look much better in his other recent films.) Combined with his nuanced acting, his character is painful to watch; he is Ember: the spark of humanity still exists, but it can’t find its way out.

As family films go, City of Ember (like Because of Winn-Dixie and Prince Caspian) is notable primarily for how permeated everything about it is by a deep air of sadness (even with a happy ending, which I’ll admit feels a bit tacked-on). It really couldn’t have been any other way, though: Ember is a film that looks long and hard at questions of faith (yes, a kids’ movie has bested Bill Maher’s Religulous—no surprises there). As their city crumbles around them, most of Ember’s denizens (particularly Lina’s foster mother, who is essentially an aw-shucks Midwestern soccer mom) blindly wait around for “The Builders” to return, singing mindless hymns to Ember (“This is all we know / Ember is forever…When the lights go on / Hope is everlasting”). Faith that leads to complacency is directly juxtaposed with faith that leads to action (that of Lina and Doon). The hope of the crumbling human soul is shown to be in reclaiming its autonomy: it must fight for purpose, not merely existence.
This is all fairly heady stuff that could potentially be lost on kids, but frankly, it’s about time someone gave kids a bit more credit. City of Ember may be a somber film, but with some parental guidance (hence the “PG” rating, folks), kids should have no trouble seeing what it’s really about. Ember is commendable for respecting the intellect of its young audience; sadly, most of its ticket sales will probably be lost to dreck that talks down to them like Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

About the author:

A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Luke Harrington currently resides in Tulsa and works in the aerospace industry–but, at any given moment, would probably rather be reviewing movies and music.  In his spare time, he’s off playing blues piano, pretending to be Assistant Editor for MovieZeal.com, or reviewing the many musical events in Northeastern Oklahoma for Tulsa Today.