In Jeanne Duprau’s novel, City of Ember, it isn’t until near the end of the book that we discover exactly what and where Ember is and the big secret that it hides. In the film adaptation, we know right from the first scene, an early sign that the filmmakers got it wrong. The story is more or less the same: two children (played by Saoirse Ronan of Atonement and Harry Treaway) live in a run-down city surrounded by darkness that is highlighted by frequent electrical blackouts; they plan an escape but don’t know exactly what lies outside the city.
My problem is that I read the book, and came in with high expectations. Duprau’s novel is complex, poetic and thrilling, whereas the movie is awesome but empty. The sets and special effects are so visually rich, I wouldn’t say “read the book, skip the movie,” as the film provides sights worth seeing. Yet, even to someone unfamiliar with the novel, Caroline Thompson’s half-baked, dumbed-down screenplay is rushed, overlooks some important details, skimps on character development and adds unnecessary spectacle (like a killer mole, of all things).
In the lead roles, Ronan has presence and talent, but co-star Treadaway is entirely flat and has no chemistry with any of his co-stars. Bill Murray gives an interesting performance as the city’s mysterious mayor and the movie could’ve used a lot more of him, while Martin Landau, Tim Robbins and Toby Jones have such small, underdeveloped roles, you wonder why they took them.
Unlike the book’s simpler climax, the movie’s ending is one big, spectacular special effects sequence that, if you think about it, doesn’t make much sense. Director Gil Kenan (who helmed the wonderful CGI comedy Monster House) gets the look down but misses the heart and little character details. It’s sometimes exciting and the marvelous opening scenes are promising, but by leaving out key details (like the citizens of Ember’s crippling fear of the dark, their semi-knowledge of technology and their blind faith in an obviously shaky government), we get too many unanswered questions and only half the story. What begins as a potential classic ends up as another standard children’s fantasy flick. MTW