City of Ember: When Dystopic Sci-Fi Turns Theme Park Ride

Few movies this year have left me more frustrated than City of Ember. This film is about a future where humanity is forced to build an underground city, with enormous generators that give us 200 years of light to live… and the 200 years is up. There’s so much to like about that plot, so much to like about director Gil Kenan (whose Monster House is the best non-Pixar CGI animated film), and so much to like about a cast which includes 4 Oscar nominees. Yet somewhere along the line, the powers-that-be decided the movie needed to be less Children of Men and more National Treasure.

Who can blame them? I suppose a film with child leads shouldn’t get too dark—we’ve got to get those kiddies into the seats!—and there is already plenty of ominous social commentary. We’re taken into a world where there’s a severe energy crisis, the natural resources are almost gone, and our way of life will become unsustainable very soon…yet those in charge lie to our faces and engage in activities which benefit only them, with callous disregard to the working populace. Pop quiz: does this scenario sound similar to anyone? Yet the film never lets the parallels become too heavyhanded. Kenan trusts the audience to draw its own conclusions.

However, when it comes to trusting the market audience to be smart enough to enjoy this film without resorting to giant creatures, roller coasters, and National Treasure mysteries where complicated Rube Goldberg-esque devices, hidden for hundreds of years, are discovered and activated by children… well, you get the idea. The movie gets dumb. Why are these creatures giant? It’s a fascinating mystery, but aside from a character wondering aloud once, it never is brought up again. Why roller coasters as escape plans? Why must the escape plan be kept oh-so-secret? Why can’t there just be a well-hidden door? Why must every city have hidden conspiratorial agendas? In fact, why doesn’t the mayor want people to leave Ember? This plot, these characters, and the entire film are filled with more holes than Swiss cheese, which is a shame, because before the movie gets silly for the last half, I was intrigued by every single mystery that was brought up.

And Bill Murray… well, even though he’s one of the all-time great comedic actors, and he has considerable dramatic chops, his character is given little time to show any menace, and his inevitable fate is quick and suspenseless. As the final half-hour was playing out, I was praying the film was half an hour longer than I knew it was.

Then, there’s the ending. PLEASE STOP READING HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENDING TO BE SPOILED FOR YOU. When the children climb up out of the depths, it’s complete darkness. They’ve jeopardized the whole city, and they themselves are doomed. I’m thinking, “Wow, this ending is ballsy! What on earth could they possibly do?” Then… the sun comes up. Cue rimshot. Earth is fine. Everything that was wrong with the world is fixed in the last 200 years… or something. The truth is, the “happy” ending that the film gives us is so frustrating, because it discredits so much of the film before it. Why are the creatures so big if Earth is fine? There’s a big hole from Earth to Ember… did water not fall through to Ember when it rained? In order to escape, they broke the huge generator…did it all go dark, or is Martin Landau holding the escape route open for the rest of his life? How is everything fine in Ember for them to receive the note the children threw down the hole if the generator water is flooding and the gears no longer turn? Come to think of it, why did they go down there in the first place? If everything is fine on the surface, why take so much trouble to begin with? Words cannot describe how unbelievably disappointed I was with the ending of the film. SPOILERS ARE NOW OVER, FEEL FREE TO READ THE REVIEW WITHOUT ANY SECRETS REVEALED.

Despite the ending and the frustrating plot holes it creates, the film still has a lot of merit. Kenan still has a lot of visual flair and the terrific sense of creating a unique and fascinating setting that he showed in Monster House. The set design here is really bewitching, and is part of why I was so lost into the world of the film for the first hour or so. Also, he is aware that a good film should have appeal for both children and adults. I felt Monster House was a great example of that, and City of Ember took an enormous step forward in terms of ambition. Perhaps wanting a less kid-friendly denouement is greedy of me… but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that a kid-friendly film makes sense, and City of Ember, for all of its beautiful setup and its haunting world, loses it.

~ by russellhainline on October 16, 2008.

5 Responses to “City of Ember: When Dystopic Sci-Fi Turns Theme Park Ride”

  1. it is a movie that i have enjoyed so much science faction is there think it might get bigger in coming dates view it on Source(s):

  2. thanks for doing this it safes a lot of time know i dont have to read that book. Maybe you should of put a picture of the city will out a boy standing in the way. thanks again 🙂

  3. this is good

  4. This is like my Favorite book/ movie of all!

  5. Fine way of describing, and nice paragraph to get information about my presentation subject, which i am going to deliver in academy.

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