FILM REVIEW: City of Ember

PG • 95 mins • 10 October

Director: Gil Kenan

Starring: Bill Murray, Catherine Quinn, Saoirse Ronan, Tim Robbins


The City of Ember is dying. A vast man-made metropolis lit by thousands of flickering bulbs, it’s surrounded by darkness in every direction. Built to preserve humanity from a terrible event more than 200 years ago, its self-sustaining population is unaware that Ember’s time is up, and it’s time to return to the surface. Luckily, two smart kids have worked it out and they set out on a mission to find the exit by following the clues left behind by the city’s architects, the mysterious Builders.

City of Ember is an adaptation of the popular children’s book series by Jeanne DuPrau, and the film has plenty of buzz around it: it’s directed by Gil Kenan, who directed the excellent CG movie Monster House, and it stars Bill Murray and Tim Robbins. Sadly, the only buzz you’ll get of the finished movie is that made by the giant bees that fly through Ember’s impressively rusty art deco streets. While Monster House managed to channel the family fun of an 80s Robert Zemeckis movie, Ember feels like it wants to evoke The Goonies – only you don’t really feel the easy warmth between the child actors that made Donner’s film so appealing. Even worse, the puzzle-solving doesn’t really kick in until the last third of the movie, after an eternity of scenes that serve no purpose other than to set up a domino rally that eventually topples in a disappointingly straightforward way.

The strength of a good puzzle movie is like that of a good whodunnit: all the pieces should be in front of you, but you should never guess how the pieces fit together until the last moment. Here you always feel several steps ahead of the kids, which has the effect of making them seem stupid. It’s undoubtedly brave of Kenan to attempt a smart sci-fi adventure for children, and he lightly layers its message about ecological sustainability around the visual flourishes. But ultimately, this journey to rekindle the fire of humanity fails to burn bright enough, leaving only the unpleasant taste of ashes.

Jon Hamblin