Monster House director Gil Kenan makes his live action feature debut with City of Ember, and his film is a bravura piece of world-building. But he’s created a world that’s amazing and rich and then forgotten to have anything remotely interesting happen within it. He’s created a finely detailed mood piece that’s almost sure to put children to sleep and have adults impatiently waiting to get right to the end.
One of the intriguing things about reviewing City of Ember is that it’s almost impossible to spoil the movie, as it spoils itself before the opening titles. The film begins in a fluorescent lit room as scientist looking types sit around in worry; everything is shaking and explosions are heard. One guy has a case, and he seals it and puts a time lock on it – it will open in two hundred years. By then they’re hoping that the world – which is presently engaged in what seems to be World War III – will be inhabitable by the people who are going to live and create a new society in the underground city of Ember.
It’s all intriguing until act two, when you realize that the whole plot of the movie is about two boring lead kids solving a mystery whose answer was given to the audience in the first three minutes. It’s obvious that City of Ember was originally structured as a mystery, one where the final act’s succession of ‘clues’ would be thrilling and where we would be discovering the secrets of the city alongside the kids. Instead we end up with a situation where we’re standing at the finish line waiting for these boring kids to catch up to us. At first it’s not so bad – this is Oscar-level production design, and the world is as immersive as that of Blade Runner, or Brazil – but eventually the whole endeavor simply becomes tedious.
What makes it worse is the complete lack of adventure. There are almost no thrills or excitement in the picture; compare the movie’s final act log flume ride with The Goonies‘ water slide and see the difference between a film with energy and a film with nice production design. At one point the kids are climbing a huge ladder on the side of a giant generator, surrounding by jets of steam. In the hands of a director who speaks adventure, the kids would be dodging these jets of steam. In the hands of Gil Kenan the kids just climb past them. The day after I saw Time Bandits, my friends and I ‘played’ the movie in the school yard, jumping through time portals and having adventures. I don’t know how kids will ‘play’ City of Ember. Maybe they’ll run around delivering messages, which is the most exciting activity that takes place until the final ten minutes.
There are some saving graces. Bill Murray is terrific as the corrupt Mayor, injecting a bit of life into otherwise dismal proceedings. Toby Jones comes close to making a memorable creep, but the movie’s extreme anti-action stance means that his character simply disappears towards the end rather than present a credible threat to the heroes. And then there’s the production design. But the movie also savagely wastes Tim Robbins, and lead boy Harry Treadaway feels like a blank slate that will never be written upon. Saoirse Ronan, who was so sensational in last year’s Atonement, occasionally comes up from a thick layer of grime to remind us that she was an Oscar nominee, but nothing in City of Ember will reinforce the idea that she deserved it.
What’s most fascinating about City of Ember is how relentlessly dingy and dark it is, and not just in theme. There’s almost no way around this (well, there is. My recommendation for a time traveling Gil Kenan on how to fix his movie comes at the end), since the whole film is a set in a city miles underground, but it’s still remarkable that a film so devoid of light, life and color is being marketed to kids. This movie makes the film adaptations of Dickens novels look like the color segments of Wizard of Oz. As an observer of the movie industry I can’t wait to see if a film as grim looking as this one, which is all pipes and wires and dirt and darkness, will connect with kids. I mentioned Brazil earlier, and City of Ember really does remind me of that film visually, but without the fantasy sequences to lend contrast to the proceedings. And without the great story and all that stuff.
Fox Walden is in the business of making kids films with ‘good values’ – Walden is religious – so it’s surprising to see some themes sneaking into Ember that could be seen as quite subversive. The original 200 year end date for Ember has come and gone, leaving the city to slowly rot and deterioate. Is it coincidental that 200+ years is the age of the United States? How are we to understand the corrupt, self-serving government that steals from the poor to keep themselves and their friends fat? There’s also an apocalyptic cult in the movie, but this being Walden, they’re pretty benign. In fact, they’re utterly useless and serve no purpose.
Much of the film feels that way. There are a lot of problems with City of Ember, but the addition of an opening scene explaining everything that is to come makes the whole movie feel like a prologue for the events that happen at the very end. City of Ember is the first in a series of books, and the movie would have served as a great opening act for an adaptation of the second in the series, The People of Sparks, which begins right after the final scene of the movie. Obviously it’s too late to do that (unless Kenan builds a time machine and takes care of his mistake), and I have a feeling that there’s never going to be a chance to make a sequel to this film.
Which is almost a shame. Hopefully this movie doesn’t place Kenan directly in movie jail; while he has no skill in adventure, thrills or action, he is a consummate world builder and possibly a visionary director in the making. Kid’s films just may not be the arena for his somber, potentially joyless vision. I think many adults, especially adult sci-fi fans, will latch onto Ember because of the exquisite world on display and also because the lack of anything approaching fun will make the film seem more serious and weightier. These are the people for whom Kenan should be making films. He’ll never be Spielberg, so maybe he should try to be a less rollicking Gilliam.