City of Ember
City of Ember is pure escapism fun, with plenty of stark visuals and inventiveness to go around.
Based on the popular children's book by Jeanne DuPrau, City of Ember is really a cautionary tale: Don't build an underground city as a refuge for humanity against the threat of a world gone mad and forget to tell its denizens that their city will fall apart after 200 years. To be fair, the original "Builders" of Ember tried to set up an exit strategy but didn't account for the possibility of human error. Thus when the deadline comes, the current Ember-ites have no idea why their giant generator powering the whole city is failing. Although he is supposed to know, The Mayor (Bill Murray) has no clue--and frankly doesn't care that much since he has his own exit strategy. The only ones extremely concerned are teens Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan), who discover an ancient document and end up racing against the clock, following the clues they hope will lead them--and the rest of the people of Ember--to safety beyond their doomed city.
Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, best known for her amazingly sophisticated, Oscar-nominated performance in Atonement, has a face the camera loves. With wide expressive eyes and deep concentration, she makes City of Ember that much more compelling simply by the way her face registers a moment. You can tell what she's thinking without her ever saying a word. She's quite something. Treadaway (Control) isn't nearly as effective, but he fits the action-hero shoes well. Murray seems to be up to his I-hate-kids tricks (shades of W.C. Fields) but has fun with his vain Mayor. But most of the other adults are somewhat wasted, including Toby Jones as the Mayor's henchman; Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Lina's ally; Martin Landau as an old laborer who works in the city's pipes; and finally Tim Robbins as Doon's inventor dad. They all have the makings to be interesting characters, but there's just not enough about them on screen. I suppose reading the book would help.
Director Gil Kenan is a still a kid at heart, it's easy to see. Having made his directorial debut with the visually stunning Monster House, he moves into familiar territory with City of Ember, tackling the live-action milieu this time around. The city itself is fantastic to look at, from the millions of overhead street lights illuminating Ember to Lina's yarn-filled apartment where she lives to even the smallest details, such as a door knob. Kenan takes you down deep into this underground mecca to the point you almost feel claustrophobic. City of Ember certainly isn't a flick for the younger audiences either, with dark, scary things lurking in the Pipeworks of the city. Kenan, however, isn't quite savvy enough yet to elicit good performances from his actors, which is where City of Ember falters a bit--save for Ronan; Kenan just lucked out with her. No matter, this adaptation is about the visuals and the thrill of escaping from City of Ember, and it delivers the goods on all accounts.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.