A fun and moving family film with a subtly dark feel rarely seen in kids' movies since the '80s, City of Ember succeeds despite its shortcomings not only because of its fun and inspiring story, but because most of its flaws are things kids won't notice anyway. It opens with a glimpse at the titular city's birth several generations earlier, where the men who created it -- henceforth affectionately known as The Builders -- are constructing the town many miles below the earth, essentially as a vast fallout shelter. Hoping to preserve a thriving populace for roughly as long as it would take to wait out the effects of an impending unnamed (but presumably war-related) disaster, the miraculously self-contained enclave is equipped with seemingly limitless supply shelves, electric power, and complete isolation from the rest of the world.
The story then jumps forward to present day in the happy, close-knit community, where we meet our tween heroes, Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan). We also meet the other denizens of the town, and learn that a lot has changed since the time of The Builders. It seems that the citizens, however caring and warm, have become placated with the constant reinforcement that Ember is such a beacon of hope and light -- a joyful sense of pride that's been passed down through the generations at the apparent sacrifice of any deep knowledge about how anything works. The town has plumbers and electricians that can fix problem ABC with the instructions in manual XYZ, but most understanding of how the city's infrastructure actually functions has been lost, including knowledge of electricity, or even fire. These days, these things are basically magic.
The problem is that Ember has been running for well past the 200 years its generator was designed for. Nobody knows how to fix it, and while the food supplies dwindle, the lights start to regularly flicker and even go out, threatening to leave the sunless, moonless city in complete darkness forever. These moments are truly chilling, and they turn the cute little fairy-tale city into a scary place pretty quickly. This juxtaposition of harmonious utopia and broken-down dystopia makes for a very interesting world. Ember is full of quaint, old-fashioned, Provincial-looking streets, and lots of grand, steampunk-type clockwork, like a future imagined in an Arthur C. Clarke novel. But it's also dingy and careworn and not at all unlike the underground city of Zion from the Matrix sequels -- with lots of loose, open-knit sweaters. This makes the movie dark both literally and tonally, evoking that fear of darkness and entrapment so that even grown-ups might start to feel skittish.
Unfortunately, the movie's two heroes are seemingly the only two people in Ember who are curious, or even worried, about the crumbling infrastructure. Well-meaning adults keep in step with their own insulated world view, insisting that nothing exists outside of Ember, only darkness, and that it's pointless (not to mention illegal) to try to leave. Here, the story spins into a classic fable: the ignorance that seemed so blissful shows it's just one half of a coin, where the other side holds apathy and hopelessness. The moral might well be lost on kids, but for adults, it's compelling -- all the more so because we like the good people of this dying city.
Things take off when Lina and Doon find an artifact left by The Builders with partial instructions for leaving Ember. It sends the two on a series of exciting adventures, running all over the murky innards of the municipality like raggedy detectives. They continue their hunt throughout numerous dangers, as well as outright forbiddance (stemming from corruption on the part of Ember's Mayor Cole, played by Bill Murray with his signature, genius brand of bored entitlement), but with each clue, the kids gain new insight into the minds of The Builders -- whose true intentions for Ember included the inhabitants one day leaving.
The story can get a little muddled here and there, with hiccups in the storytelling that can lead to confusion (What's this guy's job again? Why is she telling the secret? Was that a giant mole monster just now?), but kids probably won't notice, and grown-up-kids probably won't care. Lina and Doon's vigilant sense of hope is, in the end, incredibly inspiring and extremely pertinent. Released to theaters just weeks after the reveal of a devastating economic crisis, and in the midst of a presidential election that put apocalyptic visions of global warming, terrorism, and the Great Depression front and center in people's minds, the movie feels uncannily relevant and heartbreakingly uplifting. It might be a staple theme in family films, but City of Ember is a useful reminder about the power of the human spirit to triumph where our own hopelessly broken systems have failed. It's a message that the filmmakers didn't take for granted -- and that hopefully viewers won't either.
City of Ember on AllMovie
City of Ember (2008)