Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Bill Murray, Martin Landau, Mary Kay Place, Toby Jones, Tim Robbins
Director: Gil Kenan
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1, Full Screen 1.33:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: See Review
Length: 95 Minutes
Release Date: January 20, 2009

ďTodayÖwe, the people stand united against the darkness!Ē

Film ***

There are some things Iíll never understand in life. Itís so rare these days to find a movie aimed at kids that has a real sense of imagination and wonder. City of Ember is the kind of entertainment that young viewers can really get a lot out of, and yet it bombed in theaters at very same time families and kids were flocking to see Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Ahh, what a glorious world we live in.

In fact, it came and went from theaters so quickly that even I was unable to catch it, and though Iím not one to rush right out and see a kid-oriented feature in the multiplex, I had a good reason for wanting to check this one out. It marks the live action feature debut for director Gil Kenan, whose Monster House is one of the best computer animated movies Iíve ever seen. Having made such a marvel of an animated film, which was also his very first feature as a director, Kenan struck me as a real and unique talent whose future work I wouldnít want to miss out on.

And sure enough, Kenan has found the perfect follow up with City of Ember. Much like Monster House and the recent Spiderwick Chronicles, itís a great throwback to more edgy kid-friendly adventure movies of the 80s like The Goonies. At the same time, it delivers a story and an environment that are both downright original at times.

Based on a novel series by Jeanne DuPrau, the story takes place in a futuristic society unlike any Iíve seen before; an entire city existing underground. 200 years ago, the Earth was in the dying process, leading to the implementation of an emergency plan. It resulted in scientists constructing the underground city known as Ember, which has become a living environment for the survivors through the use of a massive generator and an available water source.

The year is 2416, and the city itself has started to crumble away slowly. Each and every attempt to repair the water supply and main power source has failed. A right of passage known as Job Assignment Day, which is orchestrated by the cityís Mayor (Bill Murray), allows young citizens to get involved and do their part to help fix the city and protect the human race.

This brings together two adolescents, Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway). Lina has been assigned as a messenger, and Doon has been assigned as a pipe repairman. He is fully determined to help fix the generator, while she just wants to help comfort the citizens of Ember who fear the worst is yet to come.

Both of them soon learn of a conspiracy designed to deceive the people of Ember. It all starts when Lina discovers a box containing a set of instructions. It turns out that these instructions, left behind by the cityís builders, may contain clues on how to escape the city and return to the surface.

In an age when every futuristic movie seems to depend on CG, I was really amazed by how the movie relied on practical effects, even though we do get a couple of creature effects that are clearly CG. The design of the city itself is quite a neat visual feast, and there doesnít appear to be a hint of CG in sight. I was curious to see who handled the marvelous production design, because I was certain it was the work of a seasoned pro. In a stunning twist, set designer Martin Lang was working on his first feature.

City of Ember is the rarest breed of film; an intelligent sci-fi tale for audiences of all ages. But Iím most happy about the fact that itís aimed primarily at kids because they will really have a wondrous experience with this adventure. Rather than resorting to excessive juvenile antics, like so many kid-targeted movies these days, it delivers an engaging story with lots of imagination to spare. I think of a better movie to recommend to families!

Video **

Ah, the dreaded Fox screener disc. I continue to hope that the video quality on these discs will get better, but that doesnít seem to be the case. And itís really a bad case with a movie like this where the look is a key aspect. The anamorphic image is clean and colorful and overall fine as long as you donít look too hard, only I couldnít help but focus on how overly pixilated the picture was. Again, the presentation I saw is clearly the unfinished product, where as the actual release will contain what Iím sure will be a more fantastic looking picture.

Audio ***1/2

Sound-wise, the presentation is quite terrific. Being that this is a futuristic movie, one would expect to be dazzled multiple times by the sound quality, and I was with this 5.1 mix. The setting itself allows great moments of wide range sound, and music playback as well as the many adventure sequences play off really well. That being said, I suspect the actual release will sound even better.

Features (Zero Stars)

Nothing except a few bonus previews for additional Fox titles, which is really unfortunate because anyone who likes this movie will want to know what went into making it.


City of Ember was a grand piece of entertainment that really took me back to my childhood in the way it echoed so many of my favorite adventure movies from my younger years. Itís a movie that deserves to be seen for the original visuals alone. And as far as family entertainment goes, you simply canít beat this one!

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