Wednesday, November 13, 2013

City of Ember

City of EmberI was looking forward to this film after having seen the trailer, but it came and went quickly. While the story is a bit slight, and the last portion of the film plays out like an adventure game, I would recommend at least renting this one. I liked the fact that none of the kids were smart-alecky stereotypes and there was none of the usual pandering to popular culture that destroys so many other young adult films and renders them to the dustbin of history ten minutes after their release. Furthermore, it was refreshing to see a film that doesn't require main characters (especially children) to fight a war or kill something in order to succeed. Instead, the kids rely on their ingenuity to overcome obstacles. I don't necessarily assume "wholesome" means "worthwhile," but City of Ember retains a kind of innocence in its adventure while still remaining watchable and interesting.

This is a movie which barely made a ripple at the box office, before apparently sinking without a trace, only to emerge in DVD release. Which is a pity, as it is eminently watchable, not least for the detailed visualization of the underground city of the title. It is based on a very popular series of `tween novels; I imagine that if you don't have children of an age to be entranced by the books, it would have been very easy to escape any knowledge of them at all.

The set-up for the story involves an unspecified disaster on the surface of Earth, and the setting up of a refuge city deep under the earth; an entire city, completely self-contained in a vast cavern, supplied with enough food for 200 hundred years, powered by an enormous water-powered electrical generator. The civil authority, in the form of the Mayor of Ember is supplied with a small metal box, with a set of crucial instructions and a timer which will go off when supposedly it will be safe enough to emerge from Ember and live on the surface again. But there has been a break in the chain of mayoral authority; the box has been lost and forgotten, sitting on a dusty shelf. The current Mayor is a corrupt and manipulative fool, willing to see all decay around him, if he can hold onto power and privilege for a little longer. More than 200 years have passed, and the electrical generator is breaking down. Blackouts are coming more often and lasting longer, and the only people who seem to have an interest in doing anything about it are a pair of teenage friends. Lina works as a messenger, relaying personal messages among the inhabitants of Ember, since any electrical messaging system has long since decayed. Doon works in the `pipes' repairing and maintaining an infrastructure tottering on the edge of collapse. Everything in this world has an authentic look of something worn out, used-up, patched and repaired many, many times. The movie works and works well, right up until the very, very end the escape from Ember by Doon and Lina, and Lina's little sister, which apparently seems to involve a wild water-ride and an abrupt ending which leaves a number of questions unanswered; like, what actually happened on the surface so many years ago, and what was with the monstrously huge beetles and moles in the outlaying caverns? And what would happen to everyone else, left behind in the crumbling city? The ending seems quite rushed, and unsatisfactory as if the budget didn't allow quite enough time for a satisfactory wrap-up. Not having read the books themselves, we were left more than a little puzzled. But up until that point, it is an excellent movie, in comparison to some of the others which target the youth market. Lina and Doon are likeable, responsible teenagers, not a pair of bratty, spoiled know-it-alls.

Buy City of Ember Now

When a film boasts a cast list comprised of some of the most talented Hollywood actors in Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Martin Landau, and Toby Jones, not to mention newcomer and extraordinary talent Saoirse Ronan, it will most likely go one of two ways: Either the film deserves such a fine cast and will be a great film (take 'The Departed' (2006) for example) . . . or the cast is set in a subpar piece to make up for the film's lesser elements (like 'Valentine's Day' (2010)). Luckily, 'City of Ember' falls in closer with the former instead of the latter.

The film, adapted from the novel by Jeanne Duprau, tells the story of a small city named Ember that, over two hundred years prior, was locked away by the city's founding builders. The city is run solely on the power of its massive generator that lies beneath like a beating heart. However, the old generator is slowly falling apart, casting the city into short periods of darkness. Doon Harrow (Harry Treadway), a young boy recently assigned to work on the pipes of the city, is convinced that only he can fix the generator and help the city. During his explorations of the piping systems, he finds a mysterious room that is unmarked on his maps. With the help of Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan), the two teens discover the secrets of Ember and the answers that may help save the townspeople from eternal darkness.

When 'City of Ember' was released into theatres, it seemed to have gone by the attention of most people without much notice. With a production budget of over $50 million, the film only raked in about $8 million domestically. But, why was this film such a tremendous bomb? From the looks of it, it had little to do with the film's quality. It has a very solid cast behind it, the story is entertaining, kids movies at this level typically do well, and the trailers made it look to be very beautiful (which it was). It would seem, then, that the film was simply just undermarketed. Very little attention was given by the marketing team for this one and that's what killed it.

Had 'City of Ember' been given a proper marketing campaign, it could've been very successful. The film is really quite good. The acting, as expected, is fantastic. The cast of legends like Bill Murray & Martin Landau were fantastically chosen; and, the 'Lovely Bones' star Saoirse Ronan is quickly becoming one of the best actors of her age group, not to mention a definite for a few Oscars in her lifetime. The story is very entertaining, even if it isn't the most original or mysterious. The set design, however, is really what sets the film apart. Ember is built into a fantastic and beautiful city, from the underground and above. One issue that many seem to have deals with the CGI effects in the film, especially some of the scenes towards the end. While some of the CGI is spotty, it's hardly distracting enough to remove from the overall beauty of the film and no one should allow such small issues to detract wholly from an overall good film.

While book purists appear not to love the film for the oversimplification of the adaptation, those who have not read Duprau's novel should have a good time with it.

Final Verdict: 8/10.


Read Best Reviews of City of Ember Here

Mar2011: Being a sci-fi/fantasy junkie, I devoured all four books in the series after my 10yo read the first one for a book report recently. Although some details are implausible, they are an easy read (I read the 2nd one in half a day), entertaining and thought-provoking. So it was with great interest that I rented the movie to see how much was changed. I liked the fact that it was good, clean family entertainment. My kids enjoyed the movie because it had more style than substance. Overall, however, it was just OK: not great, not bad. Off the top of my head:

The food shortages and absolute terror of being stranded in a permanently black environment from an unreliable generator could have been effectively conveyed visually, but what's up with the giant (not mutants) bugs and star moles? Adding a bizarre element of normally benign nocturnal creatures to the storyline where the former would have sufficed was unnecessary, to say the least. Since surface books were not allowed to encourage curiosity about the outside world, I was surprised to see Doon so casually refer to an old printed bug book to identify the beetle.

Paper and pencils are also a rare commodity, thus the need for verbal messengers. Yet the movie doesn't explain why there are messengers when paper appears to be in abundance.

The key changes to the escape methods were also strange, to say the least. The lockers/row boats were a clever design, but how was the rest of the city was going to escape if Lina and Doon activated the row boat conveyor belt without people to jump in as the boats went by? And the escape route via the paddlewheels and generator by flooding the river room didn't quite mesh together well at all with the locker/boat system if there's no one to catch the boats.

There wasn't a clear explanation for the fact that the Emberites had no knowledge of how the generator works, nor how to create portable light without electricity (no fire, no batteries, no candles), so instructions on how to light a match towads the end of the movie was a weird introduction to this fact.

Finally, the signs on the cave wall indicated they were there for the original inhabitants to follow when they arrived, but they really wouldn't make sense to anyone that hadn't read the books. Especially the one sign that showed someone carrying a baby DOWN a flight of stairs.

All in all, I had a hard time reconciling some of the changes I felt were unnecessary. The plot was rushed and the characters weren't as fully developed. I'm not sure I would have enjoyed the movie more if I hadn't read the books, but if the Harry Potter movies can stand alone regardless of the books, then it shouldn't be so hard to make this movie work on its own without relying on cheap effects and one-dimensional characters.

Want City of Ember Discount?

I do have to warn you that you cannot watch this film half-heartedly if you want to know what's really going on or if you want to get the full effect of the film. My son is a multi-tasker. He tried to watch the film, for the first time, while playing his computer game, W.O.W., like he usually does and found himself having a difficult time getting into the film. Once he sat down to actually watch the film, and could see with his eyes the cinematography, everything began to fall into place and he found himself captivated with the storyline.

I received a complimentary copy to review.

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