Saturday, October 11, 2008

The City of Ember: a Movie Review

Opening across the country today, Walden Media's new movie, City of Ember is unfortunately only loosely based upon the first book of Jeanne DuPrau's Ember series.

I say unfortunately because the movie script elected through a voice-over prologue to reveal the story of the founding of the Ember as a sort of post-nuclear-holocaust lifeboat for humanity, designed to maintain the remnant of mankind until it would be safe for them to return to earth's surface. We are told that the mayors of Ember were to be entrusted with a sealed box, a sort of time capsule in reverse, counting down until it opens 200 years later, to reveal the Means of Egress from the underground redoubt to life above ground.

Scripting the opening with this prologue perhaps avoids a lot of exposition for the script writers, but it also robs the film of the central mystery which carried the rising action of the book forward so well. The readers of DuPrau's The City of Ember (The First Book of Ember) share the mystery as the young heroes, Doon and Lina, slowly put together the pieces of their city's past--and future. Fragments of information, seeming trivia, come together as they begin their quest to survive what are the last days for their doomed city. Only as her disoriented great-grandmother nears death does Lina find the object for which the woman has spent so much time searching, a strange metal box with a drawer just opened to reveal a shiny portion of a key with the emblem of Ember upon it and a torn remnant of directions for "exit."

Comparing notes with her friend Doon, whose job takes him into the dark secrets of the failing pipeworks and generator which have kept the city alive, the two friends come to realize that the city which has been their savior is fast becoming their tomb. The blackouts grow longer and longer and food and supplies seem nearly exhausted, and the two twelve-year-olds realize that their elders are too complacent, ignorant, or corrupt to save their city.

It is really at this point that the movie, after a few short scenes which adequately set forth the atmospherics and conflict within the dimly lit city, kicks into gear. The main virtue of the movie is its fast pace, concentrating most of the film's 95 minutes on the suspenseful last third of the book's narrative. Throwing in a totally unbelievable giant mole which terrorizes Lina and Doon in the tunnels beneath the city and equally faky-looking water wheels which threaten to crush them as they escape by boat through an underground river, a good chunk of the movie turns into one long and varied chase scene. Lina and Doon continually dash through the darkness to escape the corrupt and gluttonous mayor, thankfully played with restraint by Bill Murray, the mayor's henchmen, the hungry mole (of course), the constant explosions of the dying electrical system, and a downright strange escape in a tiny, compartmented boat down what can only be described as a theme-park log flume ride to their first sunrise in the world above.

For kids, the eerie setting in the ramshackle, shadowy city and the non-stop action which follows the two heroes' discoveries will provide enough excitement to keep them engaged. As kids' movies go, it satisfies the viewer on the level of a thriller, with the added bonus of a unique setting and generally admirable young characters.

But sadly, it's not as good a movie as the book is a book. With a strong and timely theme and strong young characters who behave thoughtfully and courageously through a sustained suspenseful plot already in place, I can only wonder why the screenplay short-circuited all that. It's not a bad movie, but it could have been so much better.

For my original review of the book, see my post of July 31, 2008, here. My post of the final segment of this four book series, The Diamond of Darkhold: The Fourth Book of Ember (Books of Ember), was reviewed here on September 16.



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