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"CITY OF EMBER"
(2008) (Soairse Ronan, Harry Treadaway) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Adventure: A boy and girl try to discover the way out of their long-isolated, underground city that's running out of both energy and time.
PLOT:
Two hundreds years after being established underground as the last bastion of civilization following an apocalypse above ground, the city of Ember is facing various problems. While a food shortage is on everyone's minds, the city's failing generator -- that supplies all electricity and light to the citizens -- is apparently starting to fail, noted by increasingly prolonged blackouts.

Mayor Cole (BILL MURRAY) tries to assure everyone that all will be fine, but for young Doon Harrow (HARRY TREADAWAY), Assignment Day couldn't come soon enough. That's when the young people of Ember learn of their upcoming vocation -- decided by the literal luck of the draw -- and Doon, son of inventor Lorris (TIM ROBBINS), desperately wants to be on the generator team in hopes of fixing it.

Unfortunately, his draw is that of city messenger, an assignment he willingly exchanges with his friend Lina Mayfleet (SOAIRSE RONAN) who drew a job working in the city's aging water pipe section. While she lives with her increasingly senile Granny (LIZ SMITH), she's essentially raising her younger sister, Poppy (AMY QUINN & CATHERINE QUINN), and longs to hear stories of her late father from greenhouse worker Clary (MARIANNE JEAN-BAPTISTE).

As she runs around the city delivering messages, including from empty stockroom worker Looper (MACKENZIE CROOK) to the Mayor, Doon begins working with pipe works veteran Sul (MARTIN LANDAU). Of course, he really wants to get inside the generator room, but while exploring for a way to get in, he makes discoveries that pique his interest in what lies outside the city in the forbidden "unknown region."

Lina, who's discovered a tattered and partially incomplete exit plan left long ago by the original builders, shares that interest, particularly due to her father also doing the same in the past. Accordingly, they set out to find a way out, but must deal with Mayor Cole's lieutenant, Barton Snode (TOBY JONES), who's determined to make sure they don't succeed.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
If I told you that a population was in turmoil, with urban decay, serious energy concerns, citizens having to cut back and losing trust in their repressive government, you might think I'm referring to the current economic crisis roiling not just America, but also most if not all of the world.

But if I told you that such elements were found not in a contemporary documentary but instead make up a piece of entertainment aimed squarely at kids, you'd probably think I was crazy, or at least mistaken. Yet, all of that, as well as some plucky can-do spirit are exactly what fuels "City of Ember."

And with a veteran screenwriter -- Caroline Thompson ("Edward Scissorhands," "The Nightmare Before Christmas") -- adapting Jeanne Duprau's novel of the same name, a promising young director -- Gil Kenan (who made an imaginative and fun splash with "Monster House") -- behind the camera, and the always fun Bill Murray showing up as the titular municipality's mayor, things certainly seem promising.

Alas, despite that collective talent, a compelling and quirky opening, an overall visual aura and array of old gadgets that seem inspired by Terry Gilliam, and an intriguing premise, the film ends up being a rather humdrum and lackluster ride where the adventure goes from point A to point B and so on, but delivers few thrills, be they of the visceral, intellectual or emotional variety.

Simply put, there isn't enough story to sustain the 90-some minute runtime, and the director (helming his first live-action pic) can't manage to build up enough interest to keep us engaged. What might have worked in the original novel -- detailing a post-apocalyptic, underground city that's running out of energy and time, and the two kids who try to discover if there's something out there in the great, forbidden beyond -- simply plods along on the screen.

The similarities to today's financial dysfunction and bungled government remedies, of course, are purely coincidental, but at least they provide the viewer with something to ponder as the kids -- played by Soairse Ronan and Harry Treadaway -- eventually find a tattered and now partially incomplete instruction guide and then follow its directions.

The problem is that neither the destination (discovering what's on the outside) nor the journey getting there is particularly interesting, especially when the kids just go from one direction to the next in about as straightforward a manner as possible.

Sure, there are gadgets and gizmos and a perilous log flume sort of escape ride, but there's no magic or excitement to them. And the filmmakers never get us to worry about the kids (save for a brief run-in with an inexplicably monster-sized mole) and what they may or may not find if they manage to succeed at their quest.

It's akin to sitting back and watching someone play a fairly droll video game where one step leads to another, but with little to nothing that might interest or engage the viewer. It certainly doesn't help that the story feels like something of a juvi combination of "The Da Vinci Code" and "National Treasure" (but without the historical significance) mixed with "Planet of the Apes" and "Logan's Run" (yet lacking the cool and disturbing sci-fi vibe of those contained civilizations similarly surrounded by forbidden borders that the protagonists wish to cross). Then there are the special effects that are decidedly (and then some) less than state of the art.

Sadly, Murray brings almost nothing to the role of the corrupt "let them eat cake" mayor and Martin Landau is completely wasted as an old pipe works employee who's constantly asleep at the (valve) wheel. Tim Robbins and Marianne Jean-Baptiste aren't around enough to make much of a distance, and while Toby Jones has the right look for this sort of pic, the material doesn't support his performance as the villainous pursuer of the two young protagonists.

While most of us aren't looking for an exciting and adventurous solution and conclusion to our current chaotic state and instead would appreciate a calm and measured approach, that's the antithesis of what we're looking for in a film. Unfortunately, there's little excitement or overall entertainment value to be found in "City of Ember" that rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed October 6, 2008 / Posted October 10, 2008


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