Why do so many dystopian fantasies shoot their wad on the visual concept, leaving nothing in reserve for plot, character, excitement or humor?
Consider “City of Ember.” I happened to see Tim Robbins on “The Daily Show” this week talking about all the terrible movies he had to take his kids to when they were young – and how he agreed to do this particular film because he wanted to make something for kids that parents could enjoy.
Give him points for good intentions. But that’s about it.
Directed by Gil Kenan (who did the underrated animated thriller “Monster House”), “City of Ember” has a fairy-tale gloss to its set-up. Robbins, as the narrator, explains that, when the world ended, the sole survivors were relocated to a city underground, with provisions made for them to return to the surface after 200 years. But during those two centuries, the secret to getting back to the real world was misplaced.
Now everyone lives in a decrepit, decaying underworld city in which the power seems to go out at regular intervals, plunging everyone into darkness. The mayor (Bill Murray) assures everyone that everything is under control, but it’s obvious that calamity is barely being kept at bay. The echo of the current financial crisis is spooky.
The central characters are, of course, young people – Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan), who are seen attending their assignment ceremony after graduation as the movie starts. They reach into a pouch and pull out a scrap of paper that tells them their job for the rest of their lives.
Doon (whose name always sounds like someone is calling him “Dude”) lives with his father (Robbins), who he regards as inutterably square. Doon is assigned to the pipeworks, alongside the elderly Sul (Martin Landau). They keep the water running in the city, but for how much longer? What the fix-it-minded Doon really wants is the chance to see the generator and, perhaps, repair it.
When the lost secret of returning to the surface reappears, it’s up to Doon and Lina – well, you’ve seen this movie before. The beloved mayor turns out to be a selfish and corrupt official (though not so much so that Murray is able to wring any laughs out of the role). Lina and Doon become hunted fugitives – and the way out of the City of Ember turns out to be a log flume.
After a while, even the elaborate sets lose their grungy appeal – think “Super Mario Bros.” for an example of a comparable triumph of concept over execution.
In fact, “City of Ember” might have worked better as a computer-animated film. Live-action seems to ground the film instead of letting it soar. As it is, it’s too dark for kids and too dull for parents.
There’s lots of light but little heat in “City of Embers,” a movie in which the soggy storytelling is never able to generate sparks.