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October 14, 2008 |

By Agent Bedhead | Film | October 14, 2008 |

If you build it, but you don’t actually do anything with it, nobody will want to come. Ever. That’s the lesson offered up by the prodigious breakdown of City of Ember as a film, which was adapted from the novel by Jeanne Duprau. Of course, when one considers that this film details the breakdown of a dystopian underground city, the resultant irony adds up to a colossal clusterfuck of Brobdingnagian proportions. Director Gil Kenan (Monster House), with the help of with co-conspirator screenwriter Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands, Corpse Bride), has failed to breathe life into this overly complex, dripping limp dick of a story. Throughout, the sheer dullness of this film made me long for Mr. Hand — not the Fast Times at Ridgemont High “Aloha” type of dude, but the Dark City sort of anemic Richard O’Brien character — to appear, wave a few digits, and induce sleep. In that regard, City of Ember is a bit like Dark City, but not for the positive reasons one would hope. Undeterred, Kenan also attempts to evoke some sort of PG-rated Dr. Strangelove sequel with hints of Metropolis and Brazil. Unfortunately, City of Ember itself fails to make any lasting impact, due to the ridiculous premise of a subterranean metropolis lit by many thousands of light bulbs, which are entirely run by a river-powered generator.

The film’s introductory voiceover alludes that, many years ago, after an unspecified apocalyptic event, a group of scientists and architects (referred to as “Builders”) constructed an underground city that was meant to last 200 years. At that point, a mysterious locked box would open itself and reveal instructions to reach the Earth’s surface. At some point, however, the box is misplaced and all but forgotten. Those brilliant Builders just weren’t smart enough to think of a backup plan to pass on such vital knowledge, so no one in Ember knows about the world that previously existed or even that they are underground. The Book of Ember tells citizens that, outside the city, all is darkness, and attempting to leave the city is a crime punishable by imprisonment. A cult-like religious group keeps vigil for the eventual return of the mythical Builders along with the whole “saving” nonsense. However, things are starting to go terribly wrong because the city has long-since passed the 200-year mark. Electrical blackouts are growing in frequency and duration, food supplies are nearing depletion, and the almighty generator is creaking towards its final shudders. Yet, as dull and uninspired as this dirty, crumbling, main character of a city happens to be, darkness would actually be quite welcome to any adults unfortunate enough to witness this film.

As far as a family adventure goes, the City of Ember contains virtually no action to speak of. Somehow, a messenger girl named Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan, the little girl from Atonement) finds the now-unlocked box, but the contents have been torn to pieces. Lina enlists a hunkalicious pipe worker, Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway), to help her figure shit out. Other than attempting to open up several locked doors, Lina and Doon do a whole lot of nothing for about an hour. Then, these two plucky heroes hastily toss together the pieces of the so-called puzzle that everyone should have figured out already. In fact, it’s amazing that the “solution” to all of these so-called clues was literally right in front of the helpless adults struggling to maintain Ember. Suddenly, during the last half hour of City of Ember, the film shifts into a breakneck pace as answers randomly fall into place. Things get even worse when the CGI kicks in with a very sharp delineation against the real-action, which results in a very inconsistent and choppy film. Furthermore, nothing really justifies exposing the wee ones to a few genuinely scary moments involving inexplicably massive bugs and a mammoth-sized rodent that’s hungry for human flesh. The director and screenwriter both fail miserably at the art of storytelling as they race towards the obligatory optimistic ending. Satisfied with their own cleverness, the filmmakers merrily leave the audience with an unsettled feeling of emptiness, which is particularly disconcerting in a film filled with so much, well, crap.

You see, Gil Kenan has filled this film with overflowing sets and several overqualified actors, but he fails to present an engaging story or characters with any sort of dimension. Veteran actors fill the roles of stock characters: Doon’s father (Tim Robbins in an extended cameo) is a pessimistic inventor; Doon’s boss, Sul (Martin Landau), uses duct tape to repair pipe leaks (yeah, fuck you, MacGyver) when he’s not dozing off in a raging narcoleptic fit. As far as villains go, Lina and Doon must defeat the stupid, corrupt Mayor Cole (Bill Murray wearing a fat suit), who is aided by a leering henchman named Looper (Mackenzie Crook) and his guard (B.J. Hogg). Surprisingly, no one in Ember has ever noticed that, although everyone is always hungry, Mayor Cole is obviously engaging in food orgies on a regular basis. Ooh, intrigue.

If you don’t see a point here, you’re not alone in marveling at the sheer lack of coherence involved within City of Ember. This film’s stunning abundance of narrative structure isn’t the result of purposeful ambiguity that will eventually lead to masterful revelations. Instead, laziness and sloppy storytelling is at work here. Although Gil Kenan has created a gritty, grimy wonder of a city, the film lacks any sort of humanity, which should have been an integral part of the film’s message. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to give a shit about any of these characters, except for Lina’s little sister, Poppy (played alternately by Amy & Catherine Quinn), who is so fucking cute it makes you wanna simultaneously puke and procreate. As a final word of warning, if you masochistically must see City of Ember, absolutely do not do so after watching, say, Lost In Translation to warm up your Murray-o-meter. Even those Murray fans who go in cold will be extremely disappointed in his lackadaisical performance, which, I’m sorry to say, amounts to a lot of screen time for a role that shouldn’t have mattered that much at all. Obviously, Bill Murray is wasted in a film like this, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that Murray is visibly bored as hell and is of the perspective that, clearly, Ghostbusters III can’t get here soon enough.

Agent Bedhead (a.k.a. “Kimberly”) lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at

Fuck The People.

City of Ember / Agent Bedhead

Film | October 14, 2008 |

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