Ember is a city that glows like a coal deep beneath the surface of the Earth, a refuge for the survivors of a cataclysm that wiped out all life above more than 200 years ago. The architects of Ember reckoned that exactly 200 years was the length of time this last remnant of humanity would have to stay here, and they designed the city to sustain subsequent generations. They also drew up instructions for leaving Ember one day and returning to whatever remained of the above-ground world. These instructions were locked in a box that was passed down secretly from one mayor of Ember to the next. Unfortunately, the box was lost at some point, and now the city’s enormous generator is failing and food is running out. The box has been long forgotten, but clearly it must be found.
This is the story elaborated in Jeanne DuPrau’s 2003 fantasy novel, “The City of Ember,” and now the English director Gil Kenan has made an ambitious attempt to translate the book into a movie. Kenan, whose first feature was the mo-cap animated film “Monster House,” has created some gorgeous sequences involving the towering generator (which powers a skein of electric lamps that serve as both sunlight and stars for the skyless city) and a pair of giant water wheels turned by a river that runs beneath the town. And the bowels of the city in which he locates the picture’s more frightful doings are vividly dank and clankety.
Kenan has also cast a pair of very appealing actors, Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”) and Harry Treadaway (“Control”), in the lead roles of Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow, two young rebels who are determined to spearhead an escape from Ember before the lights go out forever. Bill Murray is on hand, too, as the latest mayor, and so are Tim Robbins and Mackenzie Crook (the one-eyed dimwit in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies).
In short, “City of Ember” would seem to have all the makings of a kid-flick classic. Whether kids will actually flock to see it seems iffy, though. For one thing, up until the end, the picture is glacially paced (it’s been edited with a remarkable lack of propulsive flair — although who knows what the editor had to work with), and it’s hard to imagine the average hyperactive youth being willing to stick with it when “Eagle Eye” beckons elsewhere in the multiplex. Much of the story is confined in the village-y streets and dwellings of Ember, which looks like a toy-town London (there’s even a Harrods). The sets are elaborate, but very stagy, and when thronged with jolly Emberites, they suggest an Off-Broadway production of “Brigadoon.”
There are also a few problems in the supporting cast, chief among them, believe it or not, Bill Murray . Murray is an actor who could wilt a building with his rheumy gaze, and his presence here is so insurmountably satirical that he throws the movie out of whack — he always seems to be putting us on, which is not really what we need in a suspiciously devious mayor, however comically potbellied he may be. A different sort of problem crops up with Robbins and Crook, who play key characters (Robbins’ Loris Harrow is Doon’s inventor father) but are barely in the movie. Such odd marginalization may indicate that this 95-minute picture once existed in a rather longer version. Given the pokey visual rhythms on view in this one, though, ruthless compression may have been well advised (or, more likely, enforced).
“City of Ember” comes to us from Tom Hanks’ Playtone production company, which reportedly has also optioned “The People of Sparks,” the second in DuPrau’s quartet of Ember novels. Possibly a mini-franchise was envisioned. Judging by this picture, though, I think all involved can probably make other plans.
Check out everything we’ve got on “City of Ember.”
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