Ember is an underground city, lit only by electric lamps, whose inhabitants have no mobile light sources — including even fire. The darkness beyond, they believe, extends forever. But their power supply is running out. Ember is falling apart. And young messenger Lina (Ronan) and pipe worker Doon (Treadaway) are looking for the exit.
Gil Kenan’s Monster House was a beacon, flashing out across a darkness in which lurked faceless, franchise-spawned blockbusters, its sadly underappreciated luminance announcing: here is a new talent. Be excited. With its ’80s kids’ adventure vibe and whirling, mo-cap style, Kenan marked himself out as a tyro who could tune in to a smart script and turn it in to an fairground-style entertainment, chills, spills and all. So now we come to his second film: gone is the mo-cap, but the ’80s kids’ adventure vibe remains.
On one level — and it’s a very important one — City Of Ember, based on Jeanne Duprau’s novel, is a triumph. Kenan has talked about his titular conurbation as the main character, and it’s clearly the one he loves most. Ember is a decaying, dank urban jumble of crumbling redbricks, rusting lampposts and bleeding pipes, the kind of fantasy-sci-fi-retro world realised by Terry Gilliam in Brazil or Jeunet and Caro in The City Of Lost Children. We’re introduced to this subterranean mini-metropolis’ decrepit charms via an astonishing aerial shot which wheels down from hundreds of dangling, flickering lamps to reveal humanity’s last hope, whose doom is contained within its very own DNA (or rather, town planning).
City Of Ember is full of such sprightly visual thrills, and is packed with delightful incidental details that reveal a society making-do with dwindling resources. The moral isn’t hard to spot, especially when its adult population are portrayed as apathetic, corrupt, disillusioned or blindly grasping to ill-founded faith; it’s up to inspired young heroes Lina and Doon to solve the puzzle left by Ember’s mythical Builders and escape their crumbling home.
Here, though, Kenan reveals where there’s room for improvement: story-wise, the film only feels about two-thirds there. Mysteries remain unsolved (what’s with the outsize creepy-crawlies?); exciting action sequences are seemingly promised (a conflict with baddies on an impossibly high ladder!?) but fail to materialise. The bad guys, headed up by Bill Murray’s disingenuous, pot-bellied mayor, never deliver up the threat. And there’s no sense of journey. You hope for an underground odyssey; all you get is Ember… and out!
Kenan’s palpable affection for his central creation is so strong that once we’re gasping fresh air, we want to dive back in, get to know Ember’s intriguing denizens better and properly explore its claustrophobic hinterland. Something we’re sadly denied.
With Ember’s hydro-electro-punk charms, Kenan’s convinced us he’s one of Hollywood’s most exciting (and excited!) visualists. But on the evidence of this, his storytelling skills still need honing.