"What would count down to nothing?" -- Lina
City of Ember is a visually rich lithograph of a film, full of sepia tones and so many shades of darkness that you feel you’ve walked into 1890s London. It’s a tale of industrial excess and failure, where the world that men create for themselves is unstable, in which nature is an impossible, longed for dream.
Doon Harrow and Lina Mayfleet are two young citizens of Ember, a large city, powered by a massive generator, located far underground. They have just selected their lives’ occupations out of a hat held by Mayor Cole, played with insidious smarminess by Bill Murray. Doon is excited to be able to work in the pipeworks, where he might be able to see the generator. It’s very old and fails periodically, creating longer and longer blackouts that citizens fear will someday become permanent.
No one in Ember remembers the surface; it’s been over 200 years since the city became populated, and a world “outside” is a myth powerfully discouraged by city police, who arrest anyone who ventures beyond the city’s borders. But Doon and Lina are worried that the city’s days are numbered, and with the help of a mysterious box from the past, they look for a way out.
The narrative isn’t really driven by plot or characterization. Viewers always know, thanks to an introductory scene when the “builders” discuss the need to transport people underground, presumably because of some cataclysmic war or natural event, that there’s a world above, waiting for the citizens of Ember to rediscover it.
And Doon and Lina, while reasonably charming, never become much more than stereotypes: the rebellious, mechanically-minded son and the quick-footed, quick-minded young girl. But the movie doesn’t really require more from them, because the real star is the rich visual tapestry developed by film’s designers.
Lighting is always single source and controlled—as is appropriate for a world where electricity is a fragile commodity and the main fear is a world of darkness. Light is a precious commodity in Ember, which the mayor describes as “the only light in a dark world.” A spiderweb of light bulbs, suspended overhead, illuminates the city, and those bulbs sometimes burst, showering the people below with golden sparks.
The city itself is drawn from images of industrialized London at the turn of the century, Victorian row houses coated in years of grime along a dense, confusing network of similarly grimy cobbled streets. It’s the kind of cityscape where you might expect Jack the Ripper to put out his shingle, though it’s not that kind of movie. Color is a rarity in this world; messengers wear a deep red, and one city official sports a blue coat, but those splashes only remind the viewer of the darkness and dinginess of Ember’s landscape, where color seems like an imperfectly repressed dream of a better life outside.
Despite this darkness, the film is ultimately an optimistic fable, where those in control have humanity’s best interests at heart, and if they don’t, they get what’s coming to them. The “Builders,” who created the great underground city, are attributed with near-divine insight and creative powers, and the film upholds the citizens’ faith in their vision. Authority is either benign or squashed by fate. The understanding of the universe is, perhaps, ultimately naïve.
It’s a visually arresting tale, but not one with any particularly deep insights about human nature to offer.
I recommend going to see it in the theater, especially if you have kids to provide you with an excuse. And I hope that Jeanne Duprau’s other books in the series, The People of Sparks (2004), The Prophet of Yonwood (2006), and The Diamond of Darkhold (2008) will also find their way to the screen. But I also hope that future films might marry the visual beauty of this film with a more complex and more interesting message.