A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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.

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

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