Charming ‘City of Ember’ finds wonder and terror in a crumbling underground city

December 10, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 9, 2017

City of Ember is a charming 2008 movie set in a crumbling postapocalyptic community.

The eponymous settlement was built underground centuries before the central action in order to shield its inhabitants from an unspecified disaster, presumably nuclear in nature. The city’s infrastructure, particularly its power generator, is on the verge of failure, but most of Ember’s residents are too complacent to recognize it.

One of the few exceptions is young Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway, an Englishman who’s worked in British TV and recently appeared in the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes). The brilliant, determined teenager realizes that the city’s blackouts are growing in both frequency and length. His conviction that something must be done to save the community strengthens when he becomes an apprentice in the patchwork pipeworks and learns just how little comprehension engineers have of the complex systems they’re charged with maintaining.

Harrow’s belief eventually spreads to his pixieish classmate, Lina Mayfleet (rising Irish-American star Saoirse Ronan, whom I last saw playing an undead but not unfeeling teenager), a newly minted messenger charged with verbally delivering messages from one corner of the city to another. Mayfleet becomes suspicious of Ember’s unctuous Mayor Cole (Bill Murray) after she delivers a secret message to him from a shady storekeeper named Looper (Mackenzie Crook). Her hunch that something foul is afoot only deepens when she runs across her friend Lizzie (Lucinda Dryzek) carrying a stash of canned foods that are supposed to be out of stock.

But when Mayfleet makes the mistake of reporting mayoral malfeasance to Barton Snode (Toby Jones), Cole’s creepy henchman, she winds up making both herself and Harrow fugitives from the city’s ruthless police squad.

By happenstance, Mayfleet’s family happens to possess a set of instructions for leaving Ember: A strongbox that was supposed to be handed down from mayor to mayor but saw its chain of succession broken after the murder of one of the city’s leaders.

Unfortunately, Lina’s much younger sister Poppy (Amy and Catherine Quinn) gets hold of the box’s contents and winds up munching on the directions before Mayfleet realizes the importance of what’s been sitting at the bottom of their grandmother’s closet. Fortunately, by the time she is forced to go on the run, she takes the strongbox with her.

The movie has a wonderful buildup but falters a bit at the climax, which stretches its $55 million budget to the breaking point and also suffers from a certain amount of predictability. Happily, Ronan and Treadaway are strong leads, and the supporting cast is top notch, with turns by Tim Robbins and Martin Landau in addition to those already mentioned. (It probably did not hurt in that regard that Tom Hanks was one of the executive producers.)

City of Ember was the second feature directed by Englishman Gil Kenan, who had previously helmed the animated horror comedy Monster House. (Kenan subsequently directed the 2015 remake of Poltergeist.) City of Ember’s screenplay was penned by Caroline Thompson, who has previously written for the animated Tim Burton movies The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride and his Johnny Depp vehicle Edward Scissorhands; Thompson also contributed to The Addams Family script and wrote and directed the 1994 adaptation Black Beauty, among other credits.

The movie is based on City of Ember, a 2003 young adult book by American novelist Jeanne DuPrau that kicked off a four-volume cycle.

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