Review: City of Ember

A family friendly look at a post-apocalyptic city buried miles beneath the crumbling ashes of civilization. What about that doesn’t sound like a ton of fun?
By  · Published on October 10th, 2008

Having never read the book “The City of Ember” by Jeanne Duprau, I was able to enter into a screening of the film version, simply titled City of Ember, with almost no expectations whatsoever. Besides the fact that I had enjoyed the previous work by director Gil Kenan, who did a spectacular job with 2006’s Monster House, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, especially considering that Kenan’s other film was animated, whereas this was live-action. But being a PG film from Fox Walden, I knew that it would at least be an accessible film for the entire family. At least, that is what I thought.

While City of Ember does start out as a very family friendly, light look at a post-apocalyptic city buried miles beneath the crumbling ashes of civilization, it doesn’t stay family friendly for long. In fact, somewhere in the film’s second act it shifts to being a creature-laden adventure film, which is great if you are an adrenaline junkie like myself, but not so great if you are a parent who has just plopped their sub-10-year old in the chair next to you. To be frank, it gets a little scary.

But taken as a young adult adventure movie, this film is great. It features an incredibly talented cast and is clearly at the hands of a more than capable storyteller in Kenan, who once again exceeds expectations. If you thought that he went above and beyond with his first directorial outing, wait until you see his sophomore effort.

Among the great performances are the two young leads, Harry Treadaway and Saoirse Ronan. Treadaway plays Doon Harrow, a young denizen of Ember who realizes that the 200 year old underground safe-haven is rapidly falling apart and that their power source, the almighty generator, is about to fail. And together with his friend Lina Mayfleet (Ronan), he sets out to find a way to get out of Ember and back to the surface of Earth. Treadaway appears to be a great choice for Doon, as he is just the right mix of awkward and assertive. Saoirse Ronan is also a pleasant surprise, as she unleashes a personality that you wouldn’t know she had if you’d only seen her in Atonement.

Along with the kids, we also get a few solid supporting performances from a cast of fine actors, including Tim Robbins as Doon’s father and the well-traveled Mary Kay Place as Lina’s caretaker. As well, Bill Murray is all sorts of fun as the town’s clandestine mayor. In a town that is quickly running out of food, light and hope, the mayor is every bit the leader that you would hope to not have in a time of crisis, complete with a huge gut and a disturbingly calm demeanor.

The only problem I see is that Ember appears to fall into some common traps for films adapted from books. There are parts of the story that just don’t seem to add up, including the entire reason why this underground civilization was created in the first place. From the film, we know that the world was ending, but we never really understand what was causing the world to end. Perhaps it was omitted in order to keep the film clear of being a ‘message movie,’ perhaps the book doesn’t provide explanation either, I can’t be sure. Either way, it was delivered in a somewhat fuzzy manner on screen.

Like I said before, as a kids movie this one doesn’t really work — it much more gloomy, dark and intense than you might expect. But as a young adult adventure, it works wonderfully. It is refreshing to see a well-made family film, complete with a solid script, a very good cast and a director who has proven twice now that he is an incredibly talented storyteller. No matter whether you are an adult or a young adult, if you are looking for a film with a little bit of adventure and a relatively fresh story, you will find something to like in City of Ember.

Related Topics:

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)