Looking at the DVD cover for this film lowered my expectations. Harry Treadaway cut a rather effete figure and Saoirse Ronan bore somewhat of a sartorial resemblance to her Susie Salmon role (The Lovely Bones). Fortunately, the dust jacket designers did the disk a disservice as this is actually quite a good movie.
I make a habit of not scrutinizing the list of players prior to viewing films (especially for newer fare such as this). It wasn’t long into this picture before the phrase “Thank God for Bill Murray!” rang resoundingly in my head. Indeed, Murray was just what this film needed on many levels. Conversely, I’m not sure Murray needed this film, but that’s neither here nor there.
We are there. Ember. One immediately feels references to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and perhaps also City of Lost Children. One thing is certain: the beginning of this affair bears a striking resemblance to the Jeunet film Amélie in its focus on lost, hidden, and wrapped secret items. One might assume that Ember’s writer Jeanne DuPrau was culturally borrowed from the French by producer Tom Hanks (among others), but her scant Wikipedia bio lists her simply as an American writer from San Francisco.
On to the film proper we see an admirable directing job by Gil Kenan. In the lights which fall from the artificial sky, we might think of that quasi-classic The Truman Show (1998) (and when the lights emit showers of sparks, perhaps the reference is The Natural from 1984). City of Ember’s $55 million budget is apparent in the lavish sound-stage city. There is quite a parallel to the National Treasure franchise (particularly its second installment Book of Secrets) in the end segment of our film. The narrowly-escaped deluge bears mention as Book of Secrets was released the year before City of Ember. Even the large staircase to the outer world echoes the original National Treasure movie of 2004. Of course, we can’t forget that a similar style of filmmaking was already successful at least as early as The Goonies (1985).
Another Saoirse Ronan film also would later feature a sort of underground city (The Host, 2013). Further parallels could perhaps be drawn between the pernicious blackouts of our film and the home state of our author DuPrau (California).
In simplest terms, Bill Murray is hilarious as always (when allowed to work to his strengths). Murray plays the mayor of our doomed civilization…generally a scumbag throughout. Harry Treadaway’s first few lines are delivered rather starched, but he improves vastly over the course of the film to give an all-around fine performance. Saoirse Ronan (my reason for watching in the first place) is excellent as always. Her sprinting streaks as a messenger presage the awesome talents of Hanna which she would pull off a few years later.
Truth be known, this is unrecognizable from a Disney movie, but I do not fault it for that in the least. It is good to see even these largely sanitized stories point an indicative finger at the national security state and the way it operates. The corruption of power is timeless. In yet another National Treasure borrowing, the Pipeworks technician Sul keeps the gears of the hydro plant working just as Ed Harris had held the gate open for Nicolas Cage and company to escape the flooded Cibola. Oh, and the sun also rises…