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.

Repair-adise: The Myth of the Self-Cleaning Earth

3224040683_22edd9a60cOkay, I’ve seen the trope enough.  Yes, it is a hopeful image, but it perpetuates a myth.  End of movie: three or four people after post-apocalyptic disaster come out to “healed” Earth.  200 years in City of Ember.  700 years in Wall-E.

Gaia is a nice idea–that the Earth is bigger than us and will heal itself even from our damage.  However, it lessens any personal responsibility, and gives us some odd idea that humans, in the form that we know them, will be back one day after the Earth has gone through a cycle similar to a self-cleaning oven.

Oddly enough, the base idea is shared by those who don’t believe in Global Warming, or who don’t believe that Man is causing global warming–the idea that the Earth shifts in cold and hot and finds a balance and everything is returned to a state of Eden.

Here’s two things I know: The last Ice Age was a documented shift in the planet’s balance of hot and cold.  Those ice sheets lasted for more than 100,000 years, ending about 10,000 years ago.  The animal and plant life that we know from then have changed quite a bit over that span of time.  No more giant ground sloths, mammoths or neanderthals.  Even the steppe grasses are gone.  So,  it took the Earth 10,000 years to right itself–after some massive glaciation.  In other words, Global Warming may well indeed have been a natural shift, but Humanity will not survive a massive shift like that–certainly not in the way we are now. And likely, the Earth will come up with some radically new life forms–if it recovers at all.

The second idea here is that the Earth can take a beating from us.  No problem.  A) if it disposes of us, what have we learned?  and B)  We are capable of damaging an atmosphere irreparably.

Those Ice Ages, devastating as they were, still counted on an atmosphere.  If we hurt our atmosphere, isn’t it possible that we not just trigger an Ice Age, but stop it from fixing itself?  James Lovelock, the man who created the idea of Gaia–the earth that is an organism–was interviewed in New Scientist.

Do you think we will survive?

I’m an optimistic pessimist. I think it’s wrong to assume we’ll survive 2 °C of warming: there are already too many people on Earth. At 4 °C we could not survive with even one-tenth of our current population. The reason is we would not find enough food, unless we synthesised it. Because of this, the cull during this century is going to be huge, up to 90 per cent. The number of people remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less. It has happened before: between the ice ages there were bottlenecks when there were only 2000 people left. It’s happening again.

I don’t think humans react fast enough or are clever enough to handle what’s coming up. Kyoto was 11 years ago. Virtually nothing’s been done except endless talk and meetings.

It’s a depressing outlook.

Not necessarily. I don’t think 9 billion is better than 1 billion. I see humans as rather like the first photosynthesisers, which when they first appeared on the planet caused enormous damage by releasing oxygen – a nasty, poisonous gas. It took a long time, but it turned out in the end to be of enormous benefit. I look on humans in much the same light. For the first time in its 3.5 billion years of existence, the planet has an intelligent, communicating species that can consider the whole system and even do things about it. They are not yet bright enough, they have still to evolve quite a way, but they could become a very positive contributor to planetary welfare.

How much biodiversity will be left after this climatic apocalypse?

We have the example of the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum event 55 million years ago. About the same amount of CO2 was put into the atmosphere as we are putting in and temperatures rocketed by about 5 °C over about 20,000 years. The world became largely desert. The polar regions were tropical and most life on the planet had the time to move north and survive. When the planet cooled they moved back again. So there doesn’t have to be a massive extinction. It’s already moving: if you live in the countryside as I do you can see the changes, even in the UK.

He has a lot of optimism that despite all the damage we can do as a species, that the Earth will recover–even that perhaps these amazingly smart humans, in his opinion, the apex of creation, will figure out how to live in harmony with the Earth–eventually.

But it also might allow both a fatalism and a hedonism to develop–as if we can do nothing to hurt the Earth at all.  Lovelock was instrumental in getting the global CFC ban that led to saving the Ozone layer.   Perhaps there are still more things to do to stop the warming that’s happening–as he suggests in the article.   Certainly, we have to think short term.  Lovelock’s vision–is that after thousands and thousands of years–humanity will survive and learn.  Movies shorten that to a few hundred years, a slap on the hand for our negligent behavior instead of the mass extinction probably waiting for us.  They believe in Man rebooting after the Earth has rebooted itself.  Repair-adise.

All these movies have people waiting out the storm, walking into paradise, virtually unchanged.  Free of humanity for a mere 200 years, the planet heaves a rainbow sigh of relief, bushy gardens of plenty.  But with our weapons we can inflict planetary damage; Wall-E can never clean up all the trash and one plant can’t feed the multitudes–and there will be a long wait for the storm to be over.  And humans may not survive as humans.  There may be no humans to come back out after 55 million years….and if there are, will they remember what they did wrong?  We have to affect change.

Sure, we may not die, but we will all be changed.