You would not want to live in the city of Ember if you knew about trees, flowers and sunshine; imagine the Emerald City from "The Wizard of Oz" if bright lamps were the only light source and everyone's best clothes were shabby.
But the residents of Ember are unaware that they represent the last vestiges of humanity, stashed underground as civilization died (judging by the size of the moths and moles that make their way into Ember, the disaster was probably radioactive). Emberites are generally content that everything they use is over 200 years old. Can you imagine eating peaches that were canned in 1808?
Most people in Ember fall into three groups: many use their work to distract them from worry about sudden blackouts and diminishing resources; blue-clad Believers wait for the second coming of the mysterious Builders; selfish doomsdayers, like the mayor (Bill Murray), reason that if permanent darkness is nigh, they may as well gorge themselves on hoarded sardines and pineapples.
Then there are Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan, lately a 13-year-old Oscar nominee for "Atonement"). Doon takes an unpleasant job in the pipeworks so that he can get closer to the generator, which he hopes to fix. When his friend Lina finds the shredded remains of an ancient set of instructions, she turns to Doon for help deciphering. Could the Builders have prepared an exit strategy? These young people have begun adult life just as their city nears its death, and they are quite willing to entertain the notion that Ember is not "the only light in a dark world."
Jeanne DuPrau, author of the young adult novel on which this film is based, used Earth's existence a few hundred feet above Ember as a heck of a final twist. The film gives us this information at the beginning, an unfortunate decision. Discarded for no good reason is a twist to rival those of "Planet of the Apes" and "The Sixth Sense." I imagine that the filmmakers wanted to make the plot easier for its young audience to follow. But children are perhaps the most patient of all film audiences, especially when given a world rich with well-designed sets and costumes, likable characters and eerily familiar customs. When a piece of the story is missing, they trust all will be revealed in the end. I saw "Wall-E" with my 7-year-old cousin, a generally inquisitive girl, and she never turned to me and asked what happened to all the people. She knew that "Wall-E" would find them, if they were meant to be found.
Still, I would gladly pay full admission to take her to "City of Ember." The set and costume design alone would be worth a matinee: Lina's baby sister sleeps in a bed made of an old industrial steel barrel; Emberites fasten their clothes with safety pins; the mayor's best outfit is so faded and frayed that you or I would tear it up and use the squares to dust our tables.
What would you do if the lights were about to go out? Ignore the inevitable, wait for salvation from above, eat all the delicacies in sight? Or would you ask yourself, "What can I do to help?" Throughout the movie, adults are always telling Doon and Lina to leave well enough alone, leave the problem to the mayor or the Builders. It's a good thing for Ember that these meddling kids are too curious, too hopeful, too stubborn to listen.
CITY OF EMBER
3 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Saoirse Ronan, Bill Murray and Tim Robbins
DIRECTOR: Gil Kenan
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
RATING: PG for mild peril and some thematic elements.
THE LOWDOWN: Teens search for the hidden escape route from their dying city.