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City of Ember

Movie title: City of Ember (2008)
Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Rated: PG
Director: Gil Kenan
Producers: Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, (Exec.) John D. Schofield, Steve Shareshian
Starring: Saorise Ronan “Lina Mayfleet,” Harry Treadaway “Doon Harrow,” Tim Robbins “Loris Harrow,” Bill Murray “Mayor Cole,” B.J. Hogg “Mayor's Guard,” Toby Jones “Barton Snode,” Lucinda Dryzek “Lizzie Bisco”
Genre: Adventure/Scifi/Fantasy
Summation: Two young people venture to find what lies outside of their underground city, the City of Ember.
Spoilers ahead: Yes

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A lot of films out there get a pass from the critics merely because they are clean family entertainment. That’s the case here with what has been hailed by a few critics as “darn good family entertainment.” But I have to disagree. Just because something is clean viewing for the family doesn’t mean it deserves to be called “good.” We can’t give credit where credit is not due. This isn’t a particularly good movie.

Good movies have rich plots and deep characters that hold the viewers’ attention. City of Ember has neither. And let me deflate ahead of time those who will no doubt boast about the 2003 book City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau upon which the movie is based. I keep hearing stuff like, “The book was really good.” Okay. So what! The movie was not good. Go wild talking up the virtues of the book, but don’t talk up the movie because it doesn’t have much going for it.

The movie boasts an imaginative Goonies quality, as well as a Harry Potter-like appeal for younger audiences, and it’s got those down pat. It has very good special affects, costumes, and a well-made set for sure.

Saoirse Ronan as “Lina Mayfleet” and Doon Harrow as “Harry Treadaway” do well. Ronan’s great charisma is something to talk about, with her stunning on-screen presence. Bill Murray plays a great villain as Mayor Cole. His two-faced nature as a corrupt city official made good. What doesn’t shine through is the lame storyline—and I don’t care if it was based on a killer book!

The story is, a small metal box has been locked and set to open in 200 years time. That’s the time it will take to rid the surface of whatever catastrophe initially made it unlivable (what that was we are not told). But we know it involved radiation because rodents and rats with tentacles have mutated and grown to man-eating, enormous size—and everyone knows that in the movies radiation gives super strength and makes wicked-freaky mutations.

How a people are protected by being vaulted in an underground city with a wide-open hole to the surface right above is a separate discussion, but it does make me wonder how they changed those beautiful, dangling lights when they burned out. The lights are pretty high up, and if they had ladders that high, it shouldn’t have been too hard to see the skylight shining in, thereby prompting them to wonder what it was.

The progress of the movie I have a problem with. It starts off at the end of the 200 years. The generators are failing which is affecting the City’s power. This future city is interestingly constructed as a village, without technology or computers, or much of any recordkeeping, with old-style messengers sent to verbally transmit messages.

Sad to say, the movie is mostly boring. This city of 300 or so people meet and sing, get assigned jobs as a rite of passage into adulthood, work those jobs, and…well, that’s about it! Not much happens. Two kids begin to venture about, seeing what lies outside of the city, beyond the inner boundaries. Others before them tried with no success. But the kids stumble onto clues and diagrams and begin the journey out.

On the way, they cross paths with the corrupt town mayor and get chased by his goons, get chased by a giant rat with tentacles, and find themselves presented with the opportunity to turn a giant lever on a wall that nobody in 200 years ever bothered to wonder about! No, the lever is not a plot-point describing their lack of desire to leave. It is just an oversight. You don’t have a society where no one is curious about a seemingly useless lever on a wall in all that time.

When they make it out, with the help of old wooden lockers that amazingly float even after 200 years of age and use, they realize that all they had to do was look up and they would have seen the light of day. But if that was not enough, I’m sure bird poop and rainwater mysteriously dropping down from that hole into the city’s center would have been a pretty good indication of the outside!

Bill Murray getting eaten by a giant rat was a fitting fate to end a slow and weak family adventure movie. A young enough audience might like this, but it’s just too uneventful and lame to be an effective movie. That oft spoken of “magic” from the book just didn’t translate.

(JH)

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