A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 94 – City of Ember

City of Ember – June 2nd, 2010

I admit, I hadn’t watched this yet. I should have. It’s based on one of my favorite recent children’s books. And if you haven’t read the book, I would be remiss in my duties as a children’s librarian if I did not tell you to go find it and read it. It is one of the best juvenile speculative fiction books out there and I put it right up there with House of Stairs and Atherton and House of the Scorpion (three of my very favorite serious juvenile sci-fi books) even though from how the story flows, you don’t necessarily know it’s sci-fi from the outset. Being adults who are somewhat knowlegable about genres, there are some clues, but until you reach further into the movie it’s a dystopia, but a dystopia of mysterious origins, despite a pre-movie scene that’s supposed to give some context. The context it gives is fairly thin.

Why is there a city deep underground? Why is it falling apart? Why do the lights go out for longer and longer, more and more often? Why are the supplies dwindling? What’s happening and how are the people who live there supposed to cope? And as those questions are answered, you realize that the city was a stronghold, a fort for a small population to survive in for a short period of time. And that period of time has ended, but it was long enough for people to forget. And things, as they do, did not go entirely as planned. And so the people are trapped in their dystopia which was never meant to last, and they don’t really know it. This movie shares that little idea with Aeon Flux, but this was made for kids, not adults, and there’s a distinct lack of skin-tight bodysuits.

So we’ve got ourselves a futuristic dystopia. The opening montage shows us that there’s a box which should answer some questions and was meant to be passed down until its timer opened it, but it was lost. Main characters Lina and Doon are kids who’ve just been given their first jobs in the city of Ember, which is falling apart around them despite the mayor’s assurances that everything will be fine. Lina becomes a messenger, tasked with taking and delivering messages all over the city. Doon is assigned to the pipeworks, where he explores the mechanics of the city. Actually, they swapped jobs, but no one cares. In the book, Doon wants the pipeworks because he’s interested in insects and figures he’ll have more chance to find some there than if he’s running around the city. But whatever, they trade and through the course of the movie Lina happens upon a lot of odd and suspicious things while carrying messages and Doon happens upon a lot of odd and suspicious things in the tunnels under the city. And then the missing box is found, hidden away in Lina’s grandmother’s closet. It’s opened some time, who knows when, and Lina’s little sister has masticated a sheet of paper inside. Unfortunately for Lina and all of Ember, that paper was the instructions for how to leave the city.

The rest of the movie involves Lina and Doon trying to make sense of the patched-together instructions, while dealing with the corrupt mayor, who’s been stockpiling food and supplies in secret. Of course they escape, making their way out of the city by boat, through the river that powers the waterwheels that power the city, and ending up outside for the first time in their lives. And then they have to find a way to tell everyone how to follow them.

But that’s for another movie (and another book – there are three more in the series, two sequels and a prequel), and that’s fine. This one ends on a cautiously optimistic note, which suits the overall mood. In general, it cleaves rather close to the book, which pleased me, while adding some action and cutting out some details, which didn’t displease me because as I’ve mentioned, movies are a very different medium to text and must be handled differently. Sure, they added a Rodent of Unusual Size to the movie and I’m quite sure that wasn’t in the book. But so much of the book involves putting together the bits and pieces of the instructions and doing things in the ever-present darkness. That’s just not feasible for a movie made for kids. You’ve got to have STUFF going on. So a giant mole. That’s fine. It pings a little on my “It’s so implausible!” meter, given how huge it is and how apparently no one’s ever talked about it or tried to hunt it down, but whatever.

In fact, the only things that I wasn’t terribly fond of were a couple of visuals that technically are part of the book, but just didn’t quite work for me in the movie. The ceiling of the cave the city is in felt a little too high for me, or rather, having the lights all suspended from it did. I always got the impression that everything was accessible. Streetlights and overheads one could reach by ladder. And then the climactic log flume ride escape by boat. I’m sure there was a river rapids type bit in the book, but visually, the effects used for the movie didn’t quite work for me.

Now, sure, this movie is made for kids and if it had been made for adults it would have been grittier and harsher. The lights would have made everything look colder, not warmer, and the mayor and his goons would have posed more of a threat. The stakes would have been higher. But really, they don’t need to be for the movie to tell a good escape-from-dystopia story. And it even manages to give you an understanding of why Ember was built. It was for the good of all mankind. We know by the end that the Builders planned everything, sending people with babies down into the darkness in the hopes that some bit of humanity would outlast some cataclysm and emerge two hundred years later. It’s vague at the beginning and it’s still vague at the end, but the signs in the room at the end of the staircase, instructing people “one step at a time,” “don’t push,” and “carry the babies carefully” and the one at the bottom of the stairs, saying “You are there!” leave an impression on me. It was not an easy decision. It was not an easy task. To go down underground, leaving behind the sun and the open world, it had to have been almost impossible, and there’s enough of a long-forgotten and left behind feel to the room with the signs to touch that button I’ve got for things whose time has passed.

Please, don’t look at this movie and think that its target audience defines it. Same for the book. The movie might not be a perfect adaptation, but so few are (I’m very much looking forward to reviewing my favorite book-to-movie adaptation of all time so I can expand upon this) but it’s good enough for me to enjoy it. I don’t know if the sequels or the prequel will ever be made, but I’d watch them if they were. And I’ll probably grab the book tomorrow and revisit the story. And then I’ll find a kid to hand it to.

June 2, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

City of Ember

June 2, 2010

City of Ember

You’ll recall from my Flight of the Navigator review that I wish there was more hard sci-fi available for children. I like the idea of providing children with stories rooted in the kind of speculation that underscores great sci-fi, and that doesn’t pander or pull its punches. Such a thing is the book City of Ember upon which this movie is based. It’s a very bleak story. It tells the tale of a city built to house the last of the human race at a time of apocalypse. Deep under the ground lies Ember: a city designed to be self sufficient isolated from the world. Here the last surviving people could wait while the world above recovered. (In the book the nature of the apocalypse is never made clear, and it’s not really important.) The children raised in Ember were never taught about the outside world. That way they won’t miss the sky or the trees. And for generations they live this way, protected by the isolation of their little city, a spark in the never-ending black cave that is the only world they’ve ever known.

The builders of Ember provided instructions to lead the people out when the world was ready. Instructions locked in a box handed down from Mayor to Mayor. But something goes wrong, the instructions and the box get lost, and the city is left to scrape by with dwindling reserves long after the people should have left. The city is aged, threadbare and falling apart. It cannot continue to exists as it is, and the people dwelling inside don’t even know that anything is wrong because this decaying city is all they’ve ever known.

That is the world that the book takes place in, and for the most part the movie does a great job creating the same feel to the City of Ember in this adaptation. I will say that the adaptation changes an awful lot from the book. It captures some of the mood, but it’s a fairly different beast. Added in are giant insects and moles, a huge mechanical climactic machine thing at the end, and a bunch of mechanical inventions by the father of one of the lead characters. It’s all put in to make the movie a more cinematic experience – and I can accept that a lot of changes had to be made to the source material. Indeed I was astonished to hear that they were adapting the book to a film at all because such a high-concept story never struck me as something that would translate well to the more action paced format of a cinematic experience.

Most of the story beats from the book remain intact. We meet Lina, descended from the last mayor to actually have the box, and her friend Doon, a boy with a mind for things mechanical who wants to save Ember. Lina’s little sister discovers the instructions for leaving the city and eats them – leaving Lina with only portions to work with. From there in the book it’s a sort of suspense thriller. We, the readers, know what the instructions are and how important they are. The question is if Lina and Doon can decipher the instructions and figure out how to leave the city before the whole thing dies forever.

One of the things I was curious to see how they handled in the adaptation of the book was the blackouts. In the book the deepest fear anybody has is of the utter unending blackness that surrounds the little city. As the city wear out there are periodic blackouts, and since the people of Ember don’t have candles or batteries for flashlights or even torches when the lights go out there is nothing at all to light their way. The book has several major plot moments that take place in utter and complete darkness. How do you adapt that to film? (The answer is that in the movie the people have flares they can send up during a blackout, which provides a great contrast of the flickering and temporary light of the flare to the blackness that surrounds them. They also have a couple scenes where the characters in the movie are lit by a sort of silvery incandescence so we can see the action but act as though they cannot see at all – which works a little less well.)

The big action climax of the movie (which feels pulled from Goonies to me) is definitely more cinematic than the conclusion of he book (which largely involves Doon and Lina trying to figure out what boats and candles are and is much more cerebral) but it still leads to the same payoff as the two of them unravel the secrets left to them by the long gone builders.

Also added to the mix are some great actors. Tim Robbins, Bill Murray and Martin Landau all lend their celebrity to the project. The star of the though is the fantastic production design work. The movie and book are entitles “City of Ember” and it really is the city itself that drives the story. Since the entire city is a man-made thing, designed and constructed by the builders more than two hundred years before the story begins, just about everything in the movie has to be designed. Everything has to both be a little bit alien to us and also appear extensively worn and often repaired. As such an enormous amount of work has gone into every little bit of set dressing. On that level I can find no flaw with the movie. The set design, costumes, and props are all stellar, perfectly capturing this sense of the dying city and providing most of the motivation for everything that happens in the movie.

Also I give kudos to Andrew Lockington for the sweeping and majestic score that he’s crafted for the movie. It really gives life to the film as well.

I will not say that I think that this movie is a great adaptation. Too much has to be altered to make the story work on the screen. But I will say that I am glad that it exists in any form at all. It’s a deeply engaging premise, a wonderfully built world and a cool story, and we need more of those in the movies.

June 2, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment