A largely-forgotten adaptation of a largely-forgotten YA tetralogy, City of Ember has nearly enough breathtaking production values to make up for its avalanche of cliches and crummy pacing.
The film’s premise is full of potential: An underground bunker civilization has been under the surface so long it doesn’t even know there is a surface. In fact, a key difference between the movie and book is that the filmed version spoils this premise right away while the book lets us gradually discover that Ember is an underground bunker, not a “real city” as the characters do. This change was a mistake; the film just doesn’t know what to do with dramatic irony, so we’re stuck impatiently waiting for our heroes to figure out what we already know.
The story attached the premise is bland as can be, but not quite bad. After two teens begin to discover the long-suppressed secrets of their city, they plot an escape. This pair of heroes are played by Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway, one of whom is great, and one of whom is a charisma vacuum. (Hint: Only one of the two has four Oscar nominations.) Bill Murray is also excellent as the aloof villain, injecting some unexpected offbeat energy into the fun.
The only thing really special in City of Ember is the production values and cinematography: Everything is lit with warm, incandescent bulbs. The set construction is elaborate and evocative. The colors are the most intensely orange-blue graded I’ve ever seen, with the cold water pipes contrasting sharply the warm interiors. The colors are so bracing it’s almost tacky, but I loved the intensity of the look.
Alas, the movie is so generic and rushed in its final act that it’s ultimately a disappointment. With an extra half hour and a tweaked script this could have been really fun.
Nearly Good (4/8)
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.