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The City of Ember
(Books of Ember)
by Jeanne Duprau
(In Paperback from Amazon)
"City Of Ember"
This strange, overproduced distopian fantasy gets off the ground by emulating the spatial ingenuity of "Dark City," but the simplicity of its story line barely generates interest before fizzling out like the city lights. While acting talent leaves nothing wanting, with Tim Robbins and Bill Murray characterizations revolving around the exploits of a brilliant Saoirse Ronan ("Atonement") as the central figure. But the real heroes of the piece, for me, are the visual geniuses who poured so much pure talent into it.
It starts with a small cabal of city fathers who realize that the days of survival are numbered. They set a computerized box, containing life or death instructions, to automatically open in 200 years. We then follow it as it's passed to succeeding generations of city mayors, its aluminum sheen becoming worn and grey, until it finally falls hidden in some closet in the city that exists in eternal darkness save for its artificial light.
The box is found by Lina Mayfleet (Ronan) who has just been given her lifetime assignment as a messenger. Her red cape and track meet athleticism are just two of the things that distinguish her as she and friend Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway), a pipe-fitter apprentice try to figure out why things seem to be falling into disprepair.
Generator failures bring regular blackouts to the yellow floodlamps of the city, and they are increasing in frequency and duration. The contents of the box only makes the mystery worse, containing, as it does, a map with "Instructions for Egress." In other words, it's time to find an escape route, which means through the darkness to the Unknown Regions which no one has ever thought of doing.
Mayor Cole (Murray), wizened in the ways of calming public panic, is losing his grip but continuing his malfeasance in office when Mayfleet discovers his little food-hording hideout at a time when stores of food for the public are growing scarce. But, though he's the corrupt, gluttinous villain of the piece, his threat is almost too passive to care--except that he's an impediment against the idea of anyone escaping the city's fate.
The path to a successful "egress" depends on a set of fanciful Rube-Goldberg vessels transported on mechanisms activated according to the instructions in the box. Tim Robbins plays Doon's dad, a contraption maker who once helped build a boat contrivance by which to flee Ember. That one failed and killed his co-builder in the effort, so now he tinkers in his home lab. Martin Landau plays Sul, the old pipefitter trying to keep the city's plumbing in repair.
The main failure here is in the very shaky platform of sense screenwriter Caroline Thompson brings to the film in her adaptation of the book by Jeanne Duprau. But the visual genius is so great, the film must be seen. Cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet's (Deadwood," "Music and Lyrics") and production designer Martin Laing's ("Titanic") palette is that of the 17th century oil painter. Soft-lit skin tones are cross-lit with blues and yellows for consistently captivating textures. This fits seamlessly into set architecture and dressing worthy of study for their every detail. No expense was spared for this vast journey.
Exteriors are aglow in soft golds and the people are clothed in modest and worn looking garments that understate Ruth Myers' splendid design and variability. "City Of Ember" might be a strange amd simplistic narrative effort by but it is a spectacular journey of collaborative visual artistry. Gil Kenan directed. Tom Hanks co-produced and the adventurous score is by Andrew Lockington.
~~ Jules Brenner