Call me a tool, but I guess I’ll always be a sucker for post-apocalyptic children’s tales with uncanny color schemes. Despite lackluster reviews, City of Ember looked like the kind of movie I’d get into and would definitely dig for its visuals. It takes place in the underground city of Ember, the “only light in the dark world” after unknown events caused the earth above ground to become uninhabitable. It was the original plan of the architects to have its citizens emerge after 200 years, but time has caused this knowledge and the exit strategy to be lost (parts of it were reminiscent of WALL-E). Now those centuries have elapsed and the city’s massive generator is failing, causing increasingly frequent blackouts. Teenage Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) believes he can fix it, and tries to infiltrate the building where its contained through his new job working the pipes. Meanwhile his friend Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan), a descendent of one of the city’s mayors, has just been arbitrarily assigned her adult job (sort of in The Giver style) as messenger and through it gets closer to the corrupt Mayor Cole (Bill Murray), believing he knows the mystery of a box she finds in her house that contains an inscribed glass token and a half-destroyed set of instructions. As the blackouts worsen, Doon and Lina team up to solve the city architects’ puzzle so they can lead everyone out of Ember before it is completely submerged in darkness.
Ok so we all know steampunk is awesome. Like, seriously awesome. Not very popular in mainstream films though. But, much to my delight, I realized 20 minutes in that City of Ember was its own kind of steampunk… electricpunk, I’d call it! This stylization increased my enjoyment of the film immensely. Everything had a wonderful sense of clutter and decay. The costumes, the gadgets, the lighting, the architecture- it was all stunning, especially for a “family” film. Speaking of family films, I was really impressed with the overall dark tone of this movie and with many of the issues it dealt with. Lina was an orphan, and eventually left alone with her little sister. She and Doon were fighting against something people of every age in the city feared: darkness. They had little help from adults, finding many of them to be cowardly or in denial. It hearkened back to fairy tales of abandoned, self-sustaining kids like Hansel and Gretel or The Little Match Girl, or Roald Dahl‘s cynical anti-grownup books. I think many of today’s TV shows and movies geared toward children and tweens are prone to coddling. Shit happens, and people have to deal with it despite their youth. Not that everything for kids should be depressing, I’m just glad a film can talk about some of these issues realistically while still providing entertainment and a happy ending. (Oh yea, spoiler alert, it’s a kids’ movie and there is a happey ending.) Overall I thought City of Ember had some interesting ideas, which were executed fairly well by Monster House director Gil Kenan, but its visual imagery and dark tone are what kept me engaged. Also Bill Murray was great.