The City of Ember is located well under the surface of the Earth, built there by forward-thinking scientists on the brink of some kind of (nuclear?) destruction, with a plan to guide its inhabitants back to the surface in 200 years’ time. Of course, the plan goes awry, and the city remains, well past its expiration date, run by a vaguely corrupt mayor (Murray) and populated with good-hearted folks who occasionally wonder if there might be more to life. Unfortunately, the ancient generator and pipes keeping the city running are about to wear out completely.
Lina Mayfleet (Oscar nominee Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Treadaway) find themselves on the verge of adulthood and assigned their careers. Lina enjoys her new gig as a fleet-footed messenger, while Doon hopes to use his job in the pipeworks to get a good look at the increasingly faulty generator. Meanwhile, Lina—the great-great-grand-something of an early mayor—discovers a clue to reaching the surface. This premise promises some really impressive visuals, perhaps as good as sister cities Dark City (1998) and The City of Lost Children (1995), or at least a complete idea as to what day-to-day life in Ember might be like. But City of Ember seems more concerned with hurtling through the story to get to the mystery waiting at the end; it has no concept of admiring the view or savoring the journey.
Screenwriter Caroline Thompson—who adapted Jeanne Duprau’s 2003 young-adult book—usually has a flair for fantasy, having scripted Edward Scissorhands and directed a good television update of Snow White (2001). But director Gil Kenan (Monster House) only seems interested in getting in and back out again, rampaging right over the set design as well as several logic holes (the movie never establishes how much each of the characters is supposed to know). Kenan assembles a dream cast, including a snarky, pot-bellied Murray, a crazy-haired Martin Landau, sturdy Tim Robbins, Toby Jones, loony Mary Kay Place and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, but leaves them stranded among the half-conceived sets. No one is ever fully transported anywhere, and that unfortunately includes the audience.