Another adaptation of a relatively new piece of children’s lit, another study in not finding the sweet spot. Lately when the credits roll on a certain brand of film I find myself wishing that the filmmakers had the courage to either hew closer to the source, or change more than they did. City of Ember is half of a pretty damn good alternate universe story. The setting is stitched together to resemble the ideal urban children’s fantasy (or nightmare) and is decorated with encroaching dread and no small amount of wonder.

What it doesn’t have is a population worth paying attention to. So while I enjoyed dashing through the streets, in the end I was hoping to see the lights of Ember go out simply because that might shock everyone into action.

Backtrack. Ember is an underground city built by aged scientists to save humanity from some unnamed cataclysm. To the first mayor the founders gave a metal box packed with instructions for egress and sealed with a two-hundred year timer. The Founders figure everything will be cool: box will open on time, people will placidly obey instructions to return to the surface. Humanity will prevail.

That’s not quite how it happens. The box is lost and Ember falls into serious disrepair. Odd social codes evolve, like an employment system that matches kids with jobs picked out of a hat. Raw materials are gone, food is running short, and there might be giant bugs out on the periphery. Worse, the city’s giant generator is failing and blackouts are becoming common, each one lasting slightly longer than the last. The whole city is a candle about to be snuffed by a breeze.

As chaos looms two kids (more or less at their high school graduation) are stuck with unappealing jobs on Assignment Day. Doon (Harry Treadaway, Joy Division’s drummer in Control) draws messenger service. Lina (Saoirse Ronan, soon to be of The Lovely Bones) draws pipeworks. They trade so that (a) they won’t hate life and want to drop cyanide into their coffee each morning and (b) so that we can see most of Ember through their eyes.  

Doon wants to work in the guts of the city because he believes he can fix the generator. Due to a narrative oversight, we’re never given any reason to understand his belief or to agree with him. The only reason to suspect he might be right is that his father (Tim Robbins) is some sort of electrician, which mostly means he’s got a lot of mechanical doodads around the house like Hoyt Axton in Gremlins. Doon is a good teenage kid in a shitty job, which means he’s pensive and sullen and impatient, which makes for a crappy filmic lead. Normally we see the kid grow out of that phase, but that doesn’t happen here for far too long.

In fact, little of anything happens for far too long. Instead of following up on the dangers of Ember’s outer edges or diving into the guts of the malfunctioning generator, we follow Lina, the human text message, as she flits from one end of the city to the other delivering messages to the people. The upshot is that director Gil Kenan has ample time to show off the film’s stunning production design, which really is more beautiful than a bomb shelter cum shantytown should be.

Lina and Doon are united by the contents of the metal box, but that only translates into any sort of dramatic tension when the long setup has turned into a slow stupor. (As central plot device, the box is a square peg in a big round plot hole. The opening narration explains that the box was lost when mayor number seven kicked off, but doesn’t explain why everyone thereafter failed to understand that it was important. Sure, leaders one through seven had a death grip on the lunchbox in their portraits, but that’s no reason to track it down, right?)

I know that Devin’s complaint with the film is, in part at least, tied to the lack of adventure. But I could have lived without the adventure if there was more to Ember than a bunch of central casting character types. (The flighty friend, the wise old mother figure, a caring but distant foster mother, etc.)

Kenan fails to populate the place with more than a handful of characters you’ll remember for more than a minute. Bill Murray’s corrupt mayor is the standout, but even Murray seems to struggle to find fun in his work. A few other big names add recognizance (Toby Jones as Murray’s right hand man, Martin Landau as the world’s most decrepit plumber) but little personality. Sure, the citizens have gone grey and listless, but there’s a second cataclysm coming! That’s reason enough to get up in arms or go into action, or something. When personalities do clash, the action is brief, quickly leaving Doon and Lina to wander off on their own.

[Tangental point: whether through design or coincidence City of Ember becomes a limp caricature of 2008 America. The sky is about to fall; people are stuck in their ruts, trying to keep their own asses covered and mouths feed; politicians are charismatic buffoons; religious nutjobs roam the streets. Now that I think about it, that’s a caricature of most points in time since, say, the London fire of 1666. Call it coincidence, then.]

This is the point where I try to figure out a score. Because of the excellent detail in production design and costuming, I enjoyed watching City of Ember more than I’ve been able to tolerate thinking about it after the fact. I came out of the film thinking of it as a diversion, but a pleasant one. But I can’t ignore the lack of real heart and soul here, even though the clockwork replacements for same are dressed in such pretty design.  

5 out of 10