City of Ember is a triumph of production design and a muddle of storytelling, but it's a mess that still manages to charm, thanks mainly to the gorgeously intricate look of the city itself. An underground marvel of decaying brick, twisted wire, rusting metal and assorted scraps, Ember is like a clever mash-up of such dystopian cinematic playgrounds as seen in Brazil and The City of Lost Children. But underneath the patina of industrial waste, grime and fading propaganda posters there beats a heart of pure progressive, eco-conscious uplift. This subterranean enclave is the only home its residents have ever known, with several generations trapped inside its cozy biosphere, and terrified of the darkness that surrounds its borders. The adults of Ember are mostly apathetic or resigned to fate, playing out life until the dwindling resources dry up and the central generator finally gives out, but the kids are alright and still hold out hope of an exit. It's a fable, sure, but one with a sophisticated, modern twist and a dash of the wit director Gil Kenan flashed in Monster House.
Not that it's all roses or anything: Kenan lands the coup of casting Bill Murray as an incompetent, vainglorious politician, and then fails to make the most of him. Murray's a hoot, when he's around as the city's ineffectual, corrupt mayor, faking smiles and dropping platitudes with the best of 'em, while hoarding food and fretting about the painting of his portrait. If you've got Murray on board, then, for the love of Pete, let him rip, as he does here during a ceremony assigning jobs to young people — hilariously soft-selling drudgery — but he pops up too sparingly. Murray may put in but a few days' work, but he becomes a specter in a story he should've dominated. Meanwhile, crusty old pro Martin Landau makes the most of his screen time as a doddering sewer drone who keeps spouting the traditional workingman's catchphrase: "It's not my job." The presence of trusty hippie Tim Robbins pretty much tips the movie's hand politically; he's a tinker who makes tools and knows that the children are the future.
At times the movie is overstuffed and underexplained; there's enough left out to fill a TV series. But, there's a giant mole attack, which is, you know, undeniably cool. Keeping with the theme, there's no real explanation for the plus-sized mammals or owl-sized moths, or why the city's planners built an exit plan more complicated than the puzzles in Games magazine.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].