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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Movie Review: City of Ember

An entertaining, if shallow, film.


RATING: 3.0/5


In an age where wars are raging or are threatening to happen and where the threat from natural disasters is very prominent, a post-apocalyptic world setting seems ripe for the picking. Such is the premise of City of Ember, which explores the survival of humankind in the future after the Earth is hit by a mysterious disaster capable enough of leveling entire cities. Earlier this year, Wall-E delved into a similar theme, where humankind survived by migrating to life on spaceships, but what we have here in this film is an underground city built with the sole purpose of housing future generations of humans, keeping them safe from the hazards of the Earth’s surface.

But the problem is: The underground city of Ember is only built to last for 200 years before the humans need to vacate the premises and start to live on Earth’s surface again. The builders of the city have passed on a box enclosing instructions on how to exit the city when the time comes, but the box would only open after 2 centuries are up. However, the box got lost at some point of time and the citizens are now oblivious to the ‘expiry date’ of their city.

The movie lays down the history of the city right off the bat, but that’s only for a few good minutes before it picks up at a time where the city has finally come of age. The effects are palpable: Resources are quickly running out, with rations allocated to each household significantly reduced overtime and blackouts are becoming more frequent and longer – due to the fact that the city’s sole power generator is falling apart.

It’s Assignment Day, a day where graduating students choose a job that they would do for their entire life in the city via lottery. Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) picks out a job as a messenger, while Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) gets to work in the Pipeworks. As if by sheer coincidence, Lina discovers the long lost box inside her grandmother’s closet after becoming a messenger while Doon is increasingly becoming suspicious of the blackouts and strives to find some answers by working in the Pipeworks, where the generator is located. These facts alone draw them together and they find out that their great great grandparents attempted to escape the city before. With Lina possessing the clues to escaping the city and with Doon having the technical know-how, the pair of youths must now work together in escaping the doomed city and seeking hope for the people of Ember before it’s too late. However, the city’s corrupt mayor (Bill Murray) and his cronies (Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook) stand in the way of the youths.

Can you count the population of Ember?

City of Ember is, quite simply, an opportunity to hop into an alternate universe – an elaborately constructed, beautiful and thriving underground city. This comes at a time where several films are exploring grimmer themes like sex and violence, so it’s safe to say City of Ember is produced with the family, especially kids, in mind. By virtue of its target audience, the film could be excused from its incredibly shallow plot, but for more matured audiences (like yours truly) who are seeking more than eye candy (the city is really gorgeous) and constant action, a little disappointment is inevitable.

While the beautiful city is certainly credible, the behaviour of the citizens here totally lacks believability. It’s puzzling how a city of people cooped up in an underground civilization for 2 centuries can live so harmoniously together – without greed and crime being existent. In fact, even when the there are obvious signs that the city is falling apart, the citizens still carry about their daily lives as if nothing has happened (save for our 2 main characters and the mayor, perhaps). The citizens are still cheerful with nary a vestige of anxiety and it’s difficult to believe that there isn’t someone greedy, or rather, megalomaniacal enough to cause some problems in the city. In other words, the film egregiously ignores the instincts of humankind and fails to portray the negative prospects of living in an underground city – secluded from the entire world – on a greater (and NECESSARY) scale such that the citizens of Ember seem more like inanimate cardboard cut-outs or pre-programmed robots rather than REAL people. There’s no believability in the plot.

But since this film is produced for the kids, it wouldn’t matter much anyway even if it explores the aforementioned – because the kids won’t comprehend them either. What families and the kids are looking out for is the action and on that count, City of Ember succeeds – with a formula that would prove entertaining not only to its target audience but also to more matured audiences. Great portions of the film are dedicated to telling the adventures of Lina and Doon as they attempt to escape from the city: there’s a distinct sense of dread as they work to solve the puzzles that the builders have left behind and there’s a tangible sense of intensity when they assay to stay one step ahead of the corrupt mayor and his equally thwarted task force. The film is concluded with a spectacular boat-ride escape that all but confirms the fun that audiences will experience when watching this film. An overgrown killer mole is added into the mix to ensure a never-ending spiral of action, but its existence was never really explained. This is clearly another result of a shallow film, but I will give its existence the benefit of doubt since this is a fantasy flick and well, there’s supposed to be fantasy in it (commercial movie reviewers who argue the lack of explanation for humans surviving on canned food for 2 centuries and question the availability of toilet paper and medicine, the burial of the dead are therefore invalid, ya, IGN?).

Final Comments
City of Ember is a city that is too shallow, though it’s admittedly a very enjoyable watch – but only if you can switch off your minds. Being a fantasy flick excuses it from its lack of explanation for many things, but the fact cannot tide it over the unbelievably naïve and gullibility of the citizens of Ember – no one mentions that characters in a fantasy flick can be stupid, right? But all in all, City of Ember does what it is supposed to do – have lots of action so that it is an entertaining film.


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