Twitter Plot Summary: The power’s fading in the vast underground city of Ember, and there’s a conspiracy as to why. A young girl foils it.
Director: Gil Kenan
Key Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Toby Jones, Lucinda Dryzek, Martin Landau, Mackenzie Crook, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Liz Smith.
Five Point Summary:
1. Red Riding Hood, circa: 2400.
2. Everything’s so gooooold.
3. The mayor. He’s a shady one. You can tell, his assistant is Toby Jones.
4. Obligatory chase scene.
5. So that’s what happened to Lina’s parents! Mystery solved people, move along.
Most family-friendly films use a generic template for their plots, so it’s nice every now and again to watch one that comes up with a different approach to story. After it looks like humanity is about to be wiped out (likely by itself, as is often the case in these films), a group of scientists create an underground city in order for life to continue. The city has a functional operating time of 200 years, after which the residents will be able to return to the surface and resume their lives above ground. The key to this is a special box that counts down the 200 years and will open once the deadline is reached, but the box is soon forgotten about and buried away. It’s some time after this that we meet Lina Mayfleet (Ronan), who is attending Assignment Day, where students are assigned a job to do within the city. Lina swaps her intended role as Pipeworks Labourer for that of a Messenger, a modern day Red Riding Hood if you will. Shortly thereafter Lina decides to help her grandmother (Liz Smith, typically excellent) decipher the documents in a metal box and ultimately discover a way out of Ember. Just in time too, as the power is on the verge of going out and resources are finite. Lina is naturally inquisitive as her parents died when she was younger and this has led her to question everything.
Are we all up to speed now? That seemed like more exposition than it’s probably worth, for which I apologise. I can’t say the film’s terrible as a number of individual elements aren’t bad at all. Ronan and Treadaway are solid if not spectacular as the young leads. A number of other famous faces turn up for glorified cameos (Martin Landau, Tim Robbins, Liz Smith, and to a lesser extent Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook), although it’s Liz Smith as Granny Mayfleet who really fills the role and has a blast. That’s not to say that Landau or Robbins (and, indeed, Jones and Crook) don’t look like they’re enjoying themselves though, it’s just that there isn’t enough of them.
Bill Murray, when he’s on form, is a safe bet. Here he looks bored and/or surprised for the majority of the film and squanders his role as Mayor. If he’d approached it with a little bit of passion then it would have been a different story, instead his scenes grow tiresome and it’s difficult to feel anything towards his character, good bad or even ambivalence. Either bring back the dry, witty Bill Murray of the 80s or give us “serious actor” Bill Murray such as Lost in Translation. Don’t give us middle of the road Bill Murray as you end up with this kind of performance. Or Garfield 2.
For all the good will generated by the slightly off-kilter story it ultimately doesn’t work because it feels like a cardboard cut-out of any modern fantasy genre film. Since Harry Potter wiped out the box office every fantasy film has had the same style to it, which means City of Ember falls unceremoniously into that category. Passable stuff but ultimately in need of either more anarchy within Ember itself or perhaps a more experienced director instead – this was Kenan’s second directorial effort after Monster House and he’s not really been up to much since this came out in 2008. It’s a nice idea to start with, but it lacks that killer punch to make it anything other than a gentle Sunday afternoon family flick. Shame really, a Fallout 3 for kids would’ve actually been hugely entertaining.
Favourite scene: Anything involving Martin Landau, the man is a legend.
“Stop! I need to tell you the rules. One, when a customer…”
“Gives you a message, repeat it back to make sure you’ve got it right. Two: Always wear the red cape so people can identify you. Three: Our customers pay 20 coins for every message no matter how far we have to carry it, so go fast. I love going fast.”
Silly Moment: Bill Murray and the cans of food ensconced in his desk. What emotion is he showing other than surprise? Nope, that’s just