Early scenes in City of Ember set up the expectation that this is a comical spoof of the sci-fi thriller genre. Some of it has to do with director Gil Kenan's casting. For example, the reaction to seeing Bill Murray, with his signature implacable, hangdog demeanor, stroll in as the mayor of the artificially illuminated and claustrophobic city of Ember, all pouchy-eyed and deadpan, with underlings scurrying behind holding a tiny canopy over his head, is to laugh out loud. You're primed to giggle from the get-go, when a portentous voiceover intones, "On the day the world ended, the fate of mankind was carried in a small, metal box," and a group of somber elders stands around looking all pompous and ceremonial with said mysterious box. Then there's Martin Landau, delightfully funny as a sleepy, crusty old mechanic, and Mary Kay Place (her talents wasted here) as a sort of perky, futuristic true believer. And goofy little robots that keep crashing into things, and, for some reason, beetles that are the size of race cars, and huge, lumbering creatures with oily red tentacles. All potentially hilarious.
But this is not a comedy at all. Based on a book by Jeanne Duprau, the film is set in a dank and deteriorating underground world, where Earth's survivors escaped for safety 200 years ago. But now the city's generator is failing and no one seems to be able to fix it. Blackouts are becoming more and more frequent, food supplies are dwindling, and only a few smart and good people — like the single father Loris (Tim Robbins), his feisty teenage son Doon (Harry Treadaway), and Doon's brave friend Lina (Saoirse Ronan, so intriguing in Atonement and so bland here). The three are motivated to try and repair the generator and find their way out of their enclosed world to the "unknown regions." The long-lost metal box holds maps essential to solving all these problems.
But in our Harry Potter-ized era of smart and feisty teenagers fighting evil, City of Ember seems lame indeed. Unlike Harry et al., Doon and Lina are boringly earnest, never witty. In addition, those tentacled monsters aren't particularly imaginative; there are too many chase scenes; and there's entirely too much trite and cliché dialogue along the lines of "We're running out of time!" and "We have to do something!" and "Don't do anything foolish!" and "I'll bet there's something on the other side of that door!" and the repetitive "Something's not right!" Blame screenwriter Caroline Thompson for all that. But blame the director for not quite knowing how to pull his different actors into the same movie.
Genre: Science Fiction
Directed by: Gil Kenan
Written by: Caroline Thompson
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Martin Landau, Bill Murray