Thursday, October 09, 2008

Flickers #14: City of Ember: Strange Place to Visit, But ...

City of Ember
Directed by Gil Kenan. Starring Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Mary Kay Place, Martin Landau. Rated PG. 95 minutes.

Gil Kenan, director of animated fright film gem Monster House, creates another oddly beautiful universe as he shifts to live-action with City of Ember, also aimed at the younger set. With a screenplay by Tim Burton regular Caroline Thompson (Corpse Bride, Edward Scissorhands), it's adapted from a 2003 work of fantasy fiction that's immensely popular with elementary-age readers - my daughter's fourth-grade class read and loved the novel, one in a series of three books.

The titular town, an underground maze of cube-like dwellings, was established after a worldwide disaster that occurred 200 years before the events portrayed in the movie, and its entrances and exits were closed off "on the day the world ended." A metal box, its mechanical parts reminiscent of an old-fashioned voting machine, was secured by the original town's mayor. The device included instructions on how to return above ground once two centuries had passed.

Visually, the film is a jumble. The titular town looks like it's located about halfway between Dickensian squalor -- narrow alleyways, roads that might be made from cobblestone, vintage street lamps, people dressed in rags -- and some sort of post-apocalyptic refuse heap, the kind of place that the cretins in Mad Max might return to after a long day of marauding. It's strewn with creaky discarded mechanical and electronic gadgets, and yards of yarn and rope, and occasionally overrun by overgrown rodents. Ember, with its clueless, faux-regal rulers and a population of eccentrics, also somewhat resembles a down market Whoville. And there are references to Orwell here, too.

The whole operation, the power that operates lights and other essentials, is sustained by a rusted, belching generator that is threatening to fail, as the power outages are increasing in frequency and duration. Despite apparent imminent destruction, Ember's paunchy, self-satisfied and corrupt mayor (Bill Murray) blithely carries out his duties, which include handing out job assignments to just-graduated students. They choose their professions -- messenger, pipe worker, electrician, clerk -- by fishing slips of paper from a leather pouch. During the ceremony, the mayor and the kids repeat an oath that says, in part, "Ours is the only light in a dark world." Any resemblance to the alleged or actual civic blindness and false pride of real-life nations is strictly coincidental, of course.

The mayor, his henchmen (including Toby Jones, of Infamous) and most of Ember's citizens are intent on ignoring the danger at hand, aside from appointing a task force to investigate the blackouts, and address the townsfolk's worries by going forward with the city's annual "great day of singing" - yes, fiddling while Rome burns.

The younger generation, though, knows the score. Lin (Saoirse Ronan, recently in Atonement), fatherless daughter of a distracted mother (Mary Kay Place), works as a messenger and spends her time off caring for her little sister Poppy (Amy Quinn), and their elderly, forgetful grandmother (Liz Smith). But Lin manages to find time to discover and decode clues about Ember's future and past. Her co-conspirator is Doon (Harry Treadaway, Control), motherless son of an inventor (Tim Robbins) who once may have stumbled onto a plan for exiting the doomed city.

Despite the general gloominess and claustrophobic feel of the movie, young audiences will readily take to the heroism demonstrated by Lin and Doon. Older viewers are likely to be impressed by the light-touch performances of Murray, Place, Robbins and Martin Landau, and the mesmerizing look of a place that feels and sounds like a city on a submarine in distress, a strange world expertly created by Kenan with considerable help from art director James Foster (Children of Men), production designer Martin Laing (Titanic) and cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet (Before Night Falls).

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