City of Ember (2008)

Rated: PG for mild peril and some thematic elements.
Length: 95 minutes
Grade: BA-?B=B+
Budget: $55 million
Box Office: $20 million (8 U.S., 10 Intl., 2 DVD)

Written by: Based on the book by Jeanne Duprau, Caroline Thompson did the screenplay (Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Addams Family, and Edward Scissorhands.)
Directed by: Gil Kenan (Monster House)
Starring: Harry Treadway, Lucinda Dryzek, Bill Murray, BJ Hogg, and Timn Robbins.

On the eve of apocalypse, the world invests their hopes for the future of the human race on a self-contained underground city where no one will know that there is anything outside. But when the city starts falling apart after 200 years, a special box designed to help them return to the surface has fallen into the hands of children rather than the mayor of Ember.

Entertainment Value: B
Walden Media, with Tom Hanks and 20th Century Fox helping out. Like almost all Walden films, this is a successful book that becomes a decent but not great movie. The best comparison I can find here is with the other recent Walden effort (with tremendous success) Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D. In a way, the films are very similar, being essentially action/sci-fi fun romps with almost no real point, but fun nonetheless. This is very imaginative, and it feels a lot like Mad Max meets Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang with some heavy input from Tim Burton (or his most commonly used screenplay writer, in his absence) plus a teaspoon or so of Logan’s Run. It’s zany, wild, moderately dark, and it feels a bit filthy…like dirty, you know, the way a college dorm room shared by three men is filthy. Seriously, there’s just ick everywhere in Ember. No neat freak could possibly feel comfortable watching this movie and the creepy, neo-squalor these people live in.

Superficial Content: A-
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B+, Language A, Illegality A
We let the boys watch this, and there were only two parts where I covered their eyes, both involving this large slug-like monster with red tendrils that I thought could be a nightmare-generator, especially the one near the end of the movie where he is implied to kill someone. Precisely because of those two scenes, I wouldn’t feel comfortable letting them watch this alone. There are some action scenes and, as the MPAA calls it, mild peril. But otherwise it’s very clean, if you don’t count all the dirt, I mean. PG seems a bit heavy to me, actually.

Significant Content: ?
I have no idea, so I’ll punt. There doesn’t really seem to be much emphasis on thematic content here. Sure, there’s some anti-authoritarian themes, given the efforts of some people to (rightly) escape Ember to see what else might be outside as well as the ineptitude and corruption of the mayor. But really, it’s just a movie about imagination, persistence, and, possibly, the silliness of assigning people occupations by pulling job titles out of a velvet offering bag.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Turn off your plausibility detector, and you’ll have a fairly good time here. The crafting of a unique visual world here is quite good.

Discussion Questions:
~When Loris Harrow says, “There’s more to a bottle cap than keeping liquid from leaking out of a glass,” what does he mean?
~If there were ever a world-threatening event, would it be a good idea to hide people away in a city like this to spare them the knowledge of the sorrows outside? Is it possible to shelter people from pain and sadness? If they don’t know what destroyed the planet in the first place, how can learn from the mistakes of the past?
~Writers have long been fascinated by the idea of special isolated human societies. Compare famous examples like Plato’s Republic and Cave allegory, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Huxley’s Brave New World, Moore’s Utopia, and even Shyamalan’s film The Village with this movie. How does being cut off from the outside world or the past affect culture?
~One of the key ideas in trying to craft Utopian literature is that a small set of people must be in charge and know the real story, so to speak. But in this movie, it’s not clear whether any adults watched over the children or not. If not, how did they survive? If so, why didn’t they pass on knowledge of what had happened before?
~Compare this story with the story of Zion in The Matrix trilogy.
~What would be the advantages of having people select occupations by random drawing on job day? How might this make it easier for people to accept lousy jobs and limit their options among all the possibilities?
~Do the people of Ember seem to have a religion? Would you expect a society like this to have a religion? What sort?
~Why are there messengers rather than telephones and email in Ember?
~Is this movie meant as a social commentary on environmental issues and technology or not?
Overall Grade: B+
Fun, not quite as fun as Journey 3-D, but still fun. Very imaginative.

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