The City of Ember is a great fun family film, full of clever, unlockable mysteries. It comes with a map, all torn up and faded; it comes with a “ticking clock”–the fear that the city will wind up in the dark; and plenty of menacing obstacles. The ending leaves you wishing to be back in the more colorful Ember, but the movie enjoys itself and the city while it is there.
City of Ember is strongest when it is working within its world. Jeanne DuPrau is an excellent world-builder, trying to make a city buried beneath the earth believable. What would you do to make a nuclear bunker livable and expandable? The city is quirky and interesting and what I’d expect from a city slowly running down. Ramshackle, apartmental narrow English-looking cobblestone streets. No bad fumes down there–one would assume, with no cars–but then no oxygen either. True, the whole idea that the air and water are replenished–and yet not infected by radiation–is hard to swallow. But I’m willing to suspend my disbelief.
Opening sequence: I was getting ready for an infodump–but this is brilliantly constructed. If you’re gonna have to have an infodump, make it interesting. Tolkien does it with the history of the Ring in Lord of the Rings, and here, DuPrau talks about the Countdown box with the papers on how to Exit Ember. The directing on this scene focuses in on the hands of each successive mayor as they pass the box to each other in a line. So we set up our story’s inner problem, as soon as that line of succession is interrupted. Ember, like every other constructed engine, will fall apart. The city will go dark. The food will run out. And without the instructions, no one will escape. It’s up to two plucky teens to figure out how to escape. It was a great way to start the movie/story.
I found the world so interesting–that unfortunately, I was disappointed when they escaped. So let’s talk about the world of Ember.
High school graduation is not about living your dreams, but about getting an assignment to start working on keeping Ember going. What a great idea! Who needs years to find themselves? Or following pursuits where there is no market? (Where is the art down there?) Lina wants to be a messenger; Doon wants to fix the engine, but on Assignment Day, they draw their jobs out of a hat (no more School Counselors with their aptitude tests!). We start this movie with two people wanting something so badly, and they don’t get what they want! Fantastic.
We see the city falling apart and the parents tell the kids not to worry about it. This is the part that you feel resonating in today’s society. There are several things we can do to make society work better and we better encourage our kids to work on them…or maybe we can do them. Anyway, the city is falling apart–the kids join in the maintenance of Ember, but also want to fix Ember.
I was delighted by the cleverness of the plotting and worldbuilding in Ember, all the nooks and crannies we get to uncover. In the movie, yes, we don’t get to spend enough time with Lina nor Doon’s past and their characters….so this is a plot-driven movie, as movies are wont to become. But I still enjoy Lina and Doon.
Once their drive to exit Ember kicks in, though, they are consumed with that idea and we lose who they are. They could be any two kids leaving the city. It would have been nice to see more of heir characters shine through in their escapes–what they worry about, what they accidentally do. But this is a MOVIE problem, not a story problem, likely. The movie gadgets and Indiana-Jones style thrills take over to get the kids out of Ember. And I liked the hidden “magic” inside the city–as if the city had been just a half-turn away from showing all its secrets.
Truly, I would have liked to have seen a whole movie about Ember BEFORE everything breaks down…but the plot moves them out of this nifty created world into, eventually, our own boring world with sunrises and prairies and mountains. Ahhh…landscapes. They are nice. But Lina and Doon, um, escaped the plot too, or forgot that they have no way of surviving on the surface. The movie reminds me of a great carnival ride—a lot of action and joy and cleverness in the construction, and a sad sigh at the end when it’s over and the world has been “lost” and you have to exit the ride. Not the sigh of characters you don’t want to leave–but the sigh that the cool part of the plot and story are gone. For a discussion about movies that end with a “healed earth” as a trope, even when it’s looking more and more unlikely that the earth will just heal itself, click here.
I hear there are two sequels in books. Both of them take place in a post-apocalyptic/new Earth in the US… but it is the idea of that buried, constructed city that sparks imagination. If you’ve ever built a treehouse, ever put a sheet over tables and chairs as a fort in the living room, or marked up a cardboard moving box as a house–City of Ember appeals to you as the coolest underground fort can. I hear that The Prophet of Yonwood is a prequel–and that will be cool to see how they built the city of Ember. I think DuPrau is hinting at some larger themes here and I like how she’s doing that. We are all on Assignment Day–but we don’t have to draw ours out of a hat–but we need to pick them soon and get busy.
Rent the movie, enjoy the ride! Or Read the Book, enjoy the characters! Choose your assignment, fix the world! That ought to cover it.