A couple of centuries ago, the world was drawing to an end, or at least humanity was, so to solve the problem facing life on the surface of Planet Earth it was decided by a group of scientists who would become known as the Builders that the remnants of humankind be sent underground. The city they lived in was called Ember, and as the years went by the inhabitants forgot about their origins and began to exist in ignorance. The Builders had left a box with the survivors that was to be opened in two hundred years, yet even that was forgotten about, and so life went on - but for how long?
Yet another literary adaptation which mightily annoyed those who had read and enjoyed its source, City of Ember was a science fiction epic that bore a resmeblence to George Lucas' THX 1138 in its movie form, but unlike that ended up appealing to those who were unfamiliar with the book by Jeanne Duprau, and there were reservations for them too. Scripted by Caroline Thompson, where it really scored was with its appearance, as Martin Laing's production design truly conjured up a sense of existing in another world that looked a little like our own, but also more like a Terry Gilliam-esque subterranean dead end for the human race.
Our hero and heroine are two teens: Lina (Saoirse Ronan), who has just been picked to train in the pipeworks, and Doon (Harry Treadaway), who has been cast in the role as messenger. Neither are pleased, so Doon suggests that they swap jobs so that she can help out in a manner more pleasing and he can get closer to the city's generator which he believes he can mend. This is particularly important because that generator is cutting out at increasingly frequent intervals, and the threat of the entire place being plunged into an eternal darkness is a very real one. Not that the Mayor (Bill Murray) is much help...
Thompson had evidently opted to go for allegory in her adaptation, with Ember an encapsulation of the woes of the modern world in a far more convincing fashion than it was an actual community that you could believe might exist. So the authorities are corrupt and more interested in feathering their own nests while their charges suffer in poverty, the fuel that the city relies on is running out, and mass religion is blinding its followers to the real problems in their world, offering them airy comforts but no solutions. All very interesting, but it doesn't really marry with the adventure of the plotline that Lina and Doon end up in.
That plotline as created here makes the film look like more of an adaptation of a board game than a novel, with its puzzles being thrown up at every turn for the protagonists to solve. You keep expecting things to tie up a lot neater than they do, and the ending is more of an abrupt stop than a satisfying conclusion, but there are compensations, mostly from the quirks of a varied cast who are enjoying the chance to act in something so offbeat, including Tim Robbins as Doon's father who knows more than he is letting on, Toby Jones as Murray's shifty right hand man, and Martin Landau as an elderly pipe worker who continually falls asleep at work. Murray is also amusing as the untrustworthy mayor, sending out his police to keep the population unaware and helping himself to precious food stocks; however, you wish he had been given more to get his teeth into (no, not more food). It's a pity the film has to be so associated with the page, as on its own this is a pleasingly eccentric little fantasy that tends to look precarious when the light of logic is shone on its rickety structures. Music by Andrew Lockington.