Somewhere in the future, a group of scientists concoct a plan to save the human race from an unknown catastrophic event. Their plan is to create an underground city, and populate it with people who won’t know anything about the world outside of said city. After 200 years, instructions will be revealed which will lead these people back to the surface. In this way, the human race has some chance of survival.
City of Ember gives us this plan in the opening minutes, and then sends us forward in time beyond that 200 year mark. The instructions have been misplaced and forgotten, and of course no one in Ember knew what they were anyway. We know take a look at a manufactured sort of civilization; one that has outlived the resources which were set aside for it. Ember is slowly withering, and mainly because it wasn’t supposed to have to live this long. Although, it is also partially because no matter how much we plan, the thing is still populated by people.
We go through this microcosm of humanity with Lina Mayfleet, a young girl who is just at that age (possibly 16ish) where she finishes school and picks the job she will have for the rest of her life at random. That’s organization there. Lina dreams of getting the messenger job, and dreads choosing any job that would put her down below the city maintaining the generator or pipe system that supplies the city with water and electricity. Of course, that’s the job she picks. Luckily, her friend Doon gets messenger, and begs her to trade with him.
Doon is desperate to do something to help the city. Despite the fact that the leaders of the city claim everything is going to be fine, Doon is convinced that the city is on the verge of collapse. There are more frequent blackouts in the city as the power system grows more and more unstable, and Ember seems to be running out of food. Through the course of events, Lina stumbles upon the instructions for leaving Ember, though they get a bit damaged due to her little sister’s penchant for chewing things. It seems that Lina is a descendant of the seventh Mayor of Ember, and the instructions have been sitting at the back of a closet in her house for years. Lina and Doon now embark on a quest to figure out what the instructions mean, and find a way out of Ember before the whole place crashes down around them. Along the way they learn some of the problems with social experiments, and that perhaps society is not such a fun place after all.
City of Ember is a fascinating adventure, and a fairly ingenious portrayal of the ins and outs of the human species. Though this is clearly a film aimed at a younger crowd (from a book aimed at a younger crowd), the lessons are interesting, entertaining, and don’t talk down to the audience. There’s a comforting subtlety to the portrayal of human vice, and the unspoken statement that it only reared its head when the city stopped providing everything automatically.
The story is laid out to us by way of truly impressive visuals that deliver a solid sense of people living like gophers in their burrow, yet all the while surrounded by a meticulously designed infrastructure that will see them through two centuries. The details of their homes and their home life, as the city obviously becomes more and more focused on hoarding is a treat, and makes impressive use of film’s ability to relay information.
Wonderful supporting efforts by Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, and Martin Landau round things, and truly give us an idea what supporting roles are. The child stars are not great, but they aren’t half-bad, and when they get to lean on their support, they’re clearly better.
The DVD release for City of Ember is probably not only the saddest effort you could imagine, it is a massive error of thought. The only positive thing you can say about the release is that it has the full and widescreen formats in a flipdisc style offering. There are no special features at all, and this is made infinitely worse by the fact that the menu screen has a special features option. This option leads you only to three trailers. Those trailers are Labou, Angel Wars: The Messengers, and Garfield’s Pet Force.
The DVD transfer is actually pretty nice, and the film looks great. That's a serious plus for the move, because it needed to be done well to showcase the incredible sets, and the solid cinemaography that creates the mood.
Apart from that, this is simply a ridiculous release. Here is a film that lost money in terms of box-office, but might have had a solid resurgence with the DVD release. There was clearly a great deal of effort put into this film, and it screams for several special features. A commentary track, and several "making of" features would have been very interesting, and would have pushed this to must buy status. Given the incredible sets that were built in order to properly showcase Ember, it is unthinkable that there would not be some feature put together to showcase the design and creation of the shooting location. Reports indicate that the sets for the city, the tunnels, and the massive generator room were so large that actors actually got lost.
Beyond that, the change in the story from the source material would definitely be worth a look. This is a very popular book, and fans would enjoy such a feature for a start. More importantly, these changes are well thought out and serve the creation of a feature film very well. A short feature discussing the decision process would have been worth a lot.
Finally, and certainly most apparent on immediate inspection, the packaging for the DVD makes it look like a low-budget straight-to-DVD release. The whole thing is terrible in every way. Put the DVD release together with the deplorable lack of marketing for the film's theatrical release, and you really have to wonder what happened with this one.