© 2018 by J. Eric Thompson

City of Ember (PG)

Director: Gil Kenan

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Martin Landau

There was a war, and the Builders of an underground city locked away the key for two-hundred years (what they thought would be long enough for the world to be safe for them to emerge).  They gave the key to the mayor of the city and had him pass it down from mayor to mayor, until one of them suddenly died, taking with him the secret of what was in the box.  Then, of course, the box was forgotten about.

Now that the two-hundred years is up, the generator that powers the lights to the city is failing; the blackouts are getting longer and longer, and food is running dangerously low.  The box automatically opens, and a young girl named Lina Mayfleet (Ronan) and her friend Doon Harrow (Treadaway) find inside of it a key and set of instructions on how to go about getting out of the City of Ember and saving their people.

The film itself feels just like a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film (which is never a bad thing), without the overall creepiness or themes of cannibalistic butchers or dream-stealing scientists; there was even a Rube Goldberg making Tim Robbins’ coffee (am I being too movie nerd-ish here?  You can tell me…).  It was visually very pleasing, and the directing did a good job of allowing us to explore the city; although from a technical standpoint we could see an awful lot whenever it was “dark”, which often looked more like “dusk”.

The performances were nothing special, on all counts.  The two kids played believable kids.  Robbins and Landau were perfectly decent, although no name actors could have done just as well or better.  Bill Murray was good, as per usual, although he didn’t bring his full Murray-ocity to the role of the big-gutted mayor.  He was fairly cool and funny throughout, especially when he’s eating a can of sardines (wait…no one else has sardines…) or getting the kids to pick their jobs out of a hat on Assignment Day.  I got the impression that all three of them were only in there in an attempt to sell tickets.

I remember thinking to myself halfway through that the film is full of secrets (the mysterious generator room in the pipes, the dark and illegal “unknown regions”, when, where, and what, exactly, the outside world might turn out to be) that, once the answers are revealed, probably aren’t going to be as intriguing or even as complete as we might hope.  Unfortunately, this sorta turns out to be the case.

The theme of religion was prevalent throughout, though it was never specifically mentioned or looked at with any depth or insight; its symbols were simply used as a means to tell the story.  The “Builders”, to whom they pray, will one day come and show them the way.  The kids discover a “Book” that will help them along their journey to the beautiful, unknown place above.  They have a Day of Singing, which sounds, as it does whenever a bunch of old white folks sing in unison, like hymnals.

Wait, so the director of the G-rated kid’s movie Monster House decided to tell a story using global religious ideology and symbolism set in and derived from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave without ever bringing the subject to light (no pun intended…okay, pun intended)?  I think had the film been directed by someone like Terry Gilliam or Guillermo Del Toro it could have been much more successful, both in the box office and in the eyes of the audience; however, I’m sure, had that been the case, it 1.) wouldn’t have been appropriate for kids anymore and 2.) would have really pissed off the author and fans of the books (I’ll take this time to officially say that I haven’t read the book, although I’m assuming it’s much better than its adaptation).  So I guess we’ll have to be happy with the director completely ignoring the opportunity to capture a spiritual and meaningful tale in a city full of the unenlightened.  Get it??  I’m on a roll!

On a final note, I suppose if the movie subconsciously makes the young people it’s targeted at think for a second about what we know and what we’re capable of understanding, it’s doing what it set out to do.  Or maybe the Monster House guy was just trying to jam his toe in Hollywood’s door by telling a kooky story about a city of lights in a cave… Hey, it’s Bill Murray!