31 Jan

Not exactly steampunk. Rustpunk? City of Ember.

Posted by Bryan White | Saturday January 31, 2009 | Reviews

city of emberI’m laying claim to that title right now.  Rustpunk. Suck it, trendsetters!

I gotta tell ya, I was pretty tired of the fantasy movie wave that came in the wake of The Lord of the Rings. It seemed to finally lose steam last year even with a straggler like Prince Caspian from Walden Media who also produced City Of Ember. Prince Caspian cost a shitload to make and nearly grossed double its budget. City of Ember cost $55million and barely broke $15million at the box office.  Where’s the disconnect?  It may have had something to do with the amount of publicity one got over the other and I’m curious about the rationale for pimping the fuck out of The Chronicles of Narnia, a thinly veiled Christian allegory but leaving City of Ember to sink. You couldn’t go five minutes without seeing an ad for Prince Caspian but I didn’t even know about City of Ember until I started getting press releases announcing its release on DVD and only then did I pay attention because someone had the forethought to point out that Bill Murray was in the picture. Because I’ll watch anything with that guy.

Of these high-fantasy event movies, I mostly hate them. They all tend to follow the same formula. A tale of great destiny told in three acts, culminating in a huge CGI battle scene because everybody loved the battle of Helmsdeep in The Two Towers. City of Ember took a different path and from the looks of it, suffered for it at the box office.  There’s no grand war in the third act set to a sweeping Howard Shore orchestration.  Thanks to that omission, I liked this movie more than I like most of its contemporaries.

It’s never established what happens, but at some point in mankind’s miserable life on this planet, we can no longer stay above ground. Maybe there’s a war, maybe the envrionment can no longer sustain us. The world’s greatest engineers build a city underground and move a portion of the world there with the intention of riding it out for 200 years. Their instructions to return to the surface are kept in a locked box that will open at an appointed date.  The box is kept in the hands of Ember’s acting mayor but at some point in the city’s history, that mayor dies and the box is thrown into a closet where it is forgotten about.  By the time we pickup the story, the box has been open for many years, waiting for someone to find it, but because of its loss, the city begins to rot, meant only to sustain people for 200 years.  The public works routinely fail, the phones cease to work and food is running out.  All the while, the current mayor of Ember, played by Murray, is stockpiling food in a bunker, well aware of the impending doom and only a couple of Ember’s kids know what’s going on when they stumble on to the truth. It’ll be up to them to fight bureaucracy and make it to the surface or stay in Ember and die with everyone else.

First things first. City of Ember is a remarkably morbid setting for a movie made with young teens in mind and it may have something to do with the picture being left to fend for itself in limited release. Quite frankly, I find the set up and this whole notion of a forgotten past to be quite fascinating. The builders who are spoken of in hushed tones as if they are gods, left behind very simple instructions for everyone on how to run the city but the prevailing theme of human fallibility frequently shows the people of Ember ignoring them because by this point, no one knows what’s going on or where they came from.  Simultaneously, the now corrupt governing body of Ember has successfully spread the idea that beyond the borders of Ember is literally nothing, a darkness that spreads outward forever. Those who venture out and come back are carted off, never to be seen again. All of this makes for a fantastic setting.

The problem comes in the form of inaction. For such a visually arresting movie set in such a great place, not a lot happens. We get our typical angsty teen boy lead and spunky can-do teen girl whose parents were secret dissidents and the same sort of great destiny to be fulfilled that you find in these Walden Media produced fantasies but we also get a great supporting cast. Bill Murray as Mayor Cole is a sleazy fairy tale villain played to great effect as you might expect. As Murray ages, he seems to get weirder and weirder, taking on roles only in Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson flicks so his generally awkward, almost total improv performance works here well.  He’s backed up by Tim Robbins and Martin Landau but great actors aside, the film goes nowhere for the longest time.  We have plenty of time to live in the Ember setting and every frame of the underground city is a beautiful shot, bringing to mind the steampunk locations of a Jean Pierre Jeunet movie but the plot plods along as clues about how to get out of Ember trickle down. It almost doesn’t seem to click into place until the final act when all the pieces come together and the kids make their escape.

The wildlife around Ember is also giant.  Giant beetles, giant moths, giant moles, but this is never explored.

City of Ember is the story of what happens when you continuously patch the problem instead of getting to the root of it and fixing it.  It also seems to have a problem with human race as a whole body, but finds hope in individuals who ask the questions and think for themselves. As a film, it looks great! Every frame is a stunning patchwork of decay, the likes of which we rarely see in these fantasy movies. Ember is adeptly portrayed as a real place, the sort of place you could go to, not that you would want to. Unfortunately, it’s balanced out by an adventure story that doesn’t have a whole lot of adventure. Instead, it spends the lions share of its time portraying children in their fight against red tape. It may have died at the box office but the movie’s negative qualities probably had nothing to do with it.  It’s remarkable for its visual style, great cast and for breaking away from teen-themed fantasy movie conventions. The wheels just happen to take forever to get turning.


  1. January 31, 2009 1:48 pm

    Jeff L

    One thing you don’t mention when talking about why one movie did so much better than the other—one movie was based on a beloved series of childrens books. “Thinly veiled Christian allegory” or not, a LOT of people know these books. I went to see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but was disappointed. The story was the same, but something felt missing, and compared to the Lord of the Rings series, the effects weren’t up to par either.

    I’ll probably still see the rest of the Narnia series (whatever they make, at least), just because I enjoyed the books, but they’ll likely all be through Netflix.

  2. January 31, 2009 2:49 pm

    Retroman Steve

    so I should check it out or will I be bored to tears? :)

  3. January 31, 2009 7:15 pm

    Bryan White

    It’s blatantly obvious why Prince Caspian got the royal treatment. Not only is C.S. Lewis’ series of books a pretty big deal among fantasy circles, the movie is also a sequel to a very popular movie. My real question, though, is why was City of Ember left to die at the box office? They spent $55 million on it and then tossed it to the wolves. Then they quietly released it on DVD. What about this movie was so detestable that they couldn’t give it a proper promotion? You’d think they’d want to make their money back.

  4. February 3, 2009 2:39 pm


    I agree, I never even heard of this until it happened to be playing on a flight back from San Francisco I just took. I enjoyed it well enough, but I didn’t like Bill Murray in the role. I love the guy, don’t get me wrong, but he just seemed out of place to me. The movie also gave me the impression that there may have been a lot left on the cutting room floor. It felt like too big a story for too small a time frame. I just felt like there wasn’t enough time to get to know the landscape before escaping it.

  5. May 3, 2009 8:17 am


    for another, what was with the matches? they were fat, and BLUE! wtf?

  6. May 4, 2009 6:25 pm


    I really enjoyed this movie and am also questioning the lack of promotion, which surely contributed to such poor numbers in theaters. I thought the movie was relatively well done (though agree that there may have been a few things left on the cutting room floor that were pertinent) and had a superb cast. Frankly, I miss the times when child and teen oriented fantasy movies were a bit more morbid, because life is not always happy endings (and cheesy contemporary references) . Most generally based on books as well: The Last Unicorn, The Secret of Nimh, Watership Down, The Dark Crystal. Great movies. Movies that struck me and stuck with me through adulthood. I’m sure this movie’s flop at the box office will prohibit films from the book’s sequels, and I think that’s disappointing.

  7. August 28, 2009 9:37 pm


    the matches were water proof. thats how water proof matches look…

  8. September 14, 2009 11:37 am

    Greg H

    I cannot fathom why anyone would have anything good to say about the film, City of Ember. Truly, I have never found such a disconnect between what I think about a movie and what the general review community has to say about it.

    Yesterday, I was saying to myself, why on Earth have they promoted this City of Ember to the degree they have (far more promotion than it deserved) ? Visually stunning ? Hardly. It looks like something out of the early 80’s graphics wise. Story ? Absolutely stale — there must be a dozen movies with clone plots out there (how about Logan’s run guys — do any of you positive reviewers read SF&F ??). Dialogue ? In a few years my 7 yr old daughter will be writing better dialogue. Acting performances — nothin memorable, and some of the cast acted little better than good highschool talent.

    How could this waste of $55 million get close to a 50% rating in rotten tomatoes ?? Truly beyond my ability to comprehend (I have NEVER been so mystified, NEVER !!!). Glue your heads to an air compressor, turn it on, and shake yourselves awake people.

  9. October 6, 2009 6:49 pm


    Dude what the hell was with the giant slug or beetle or whatever seriously that never happened in the book and it skipped alot of other things im sure

  10. October 14, 2009 11:30 pm


    The books are great, even if you aren’t 12, and the movie didn’t do the first book justice. You make good points about its visual appeal, but I read the book before seeing the flick, and that set me up for disappointment. Grab the book, then you’ll get it.

  11. January 20, 2010 9:43 pm


    he,s right it is abeloved childrens book i,v read the book and seen the movie i think that if peoplo want the second book made into a book we should make a patction you know the thing where you get to sign saying they want something

  12. February 28, 2010 7:41 am

    bob dobb

    Er…I had never heard of this movie until just now watching it on cable(feb2010), and I looked it up. It seems to have potential, and I would figure it could’ve had a decent box office if given the right…or any, promotion. I agree it seems like a big film and I see a lot on the cutting room floor. I liked it, but it needed some promotion like a burger king toy or something.

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