I’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.