The City of Ember: Clever Assignments For Everyone

Doon and Lina looking worriedThe 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.

Stardust Shines: Character Motivation-ism

stardustSometimes it’s simply about giving everyone something to want, something realistic, and then setting them on their paths.  Stardust, the Neil Gaiman-inspired movie, does a great job of giving characters real desires and then setting them at odds with each other.

If you are writing science fiction or fantasy, even well-developed characters function at half-power until they have a goal.  Once they have a goal–man, they zip!  This is one of my favorite things to watch, as objectively as I can, that moment in my heart and interest level when the character finds a goal.  It has to be something they want, not just an interesting goal that should be “universally interesting.”  They have to want it enough to maneuver through a tangly set of obstacles.

Stardust Plot summary: To woo Victoria, poor boy Tristan promises to get her the falling star they just saw.  When he goes to get the star, he discovers Yvaine, a woman, is the star that fell.  Three witches want to eat Yvaine’s heart to make them younger, and seven scheming princes want the throne–which can only be had if they can find the necklace, which happens to be with Yvaine.  So people want Yvaine for what she can give them: eternal life, long lasting beauty, a kingdom.  Tristan wants her to impress Victoria.

Really clear goals: Tristan wants to win the heart of Victoria. When he meets up with Yvaine (Claire Danes) he doesn’t suddenly switch goals.  He could have life immortal or even Claire Danes!  But no, he wants Victoria.  He promised to have her this star and that’s what he’ll do.  Yvaine won’t budge until she sees he has a Babylon Candle which could actually get her home—so she goes with Tristan on his way to Victoria because he promises to send her back home when he gets done showing off in front of his girl.

The pirates collect lightning, the witches want beauty, the princes want the kingdom and to kill each other.  When all their plots become melded into a single objective–from different angles–it revs up into high gear.

I enjoyed this movie.  I think it’s well designed.  The narrative is strong and is propelled by the desire lines of each character.  I love how all of them use similar means to get them to where they need to go: runes.  Not a map, not a prophecy, but unpredictable magic that you have to keep checking over and over again.

It helps that the scenery–meaning the place, the occupations, the “world- building” is interesting–but without desire, it is just scenery.  With desire, it becomes charming.  There are few memorable lines in the movie–this isn’t “Princess Bride”, though I believe the plots are just as good.  The comedy isn’t as strong–too many characters for you to memorize everything.  And this is its only fault, I think, that the characters may be well-motivated, extremely well-motivated, but rarely rise above stereotype–even with all the “cool stuff” around them.  They are stock characters with bling.

Tristan IS his want.  Other than his desire, he is a bit of a goof whose entire existence seems to be winning the heart of Victoria.  No mention of what his life was like before, or his relationship with his dad and having no mom.  Yvaine has a bit more character–she has been spending her life as a star watching us (we’re so entertaining to celestial beings) so she’s always wanted to have an adventure and fall in love.  But really we can’t imagine her life as a star.  Which is why she is so much more interesting on Earth (she’s got motivation and means).   The witches seem obsessive—and we wonder how they spent their time before the star fell.  Oh, you know, the last three hundred years….  The princes are fiendish, but they have no personalities outside of good/bad/opportunistic.  They want the kingdom–they only exist to push their plotline.

So, after all is said and done: character motivation, aka desire, is essential to move characters along, but without more character work–as in WHO these people are that make them different than their archetypal roles–desire becomes plot without managing to deepen character.  I imagine that Gaiman packed more into the novel, but on screen we may only have time for one choice: character desire vs. character development.

Ebert gave this 2  1/2 stars out of 4, saying that plotlines were convoluted and that the movie never rose to the level of “Princess Bride.”  I didn’t think the plotlines were convoluted, but only that the plotlines were so well charted that it left little room for characters to grow beyond the plot necessities–but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t satisfy like the best story–especially the fairytale kind of story it represents.   I would still give it 3 out of 4 stars—it’s a great movie.  Really.  And not making it to Princess Bride Status is not necessarily a fault.  It’s a clever romp through a well-developed world.  All the pieces are in place and they interact with each other well, and you can learn a lot about the power of character motivation, and the power of character too.  Even when character shines less than character desires.