Two hundred years.
That's how long the remnants of humanity have lived deep underground after an unspecified apocalypse rendered Earth's surface unlivable. For generations, the citizens of the city known as Ember have depended upon a massive generator (powered by an underground river) to keep their beloved subterranean suburb humming.
Now, inexplicably, the great generator is failing. Power outages—accompanied by terrible blackness—are getting longer. Stockpiles of food that have sustained Ember for two centuries seem to be running low.
But the majority of Ember's citizenry stubbornly refuses to believe that life as they've always known it might be coming to an end. Chief among the skeptics is Ember's portly mayor, who calmly establishes a task force to look into these interruptions in the status quo.
Doon Harrow, the son of an inventor, believes he can repair the generator, if only he can get access to it. But the really bright thread of this story emerges from the weave when Lina Mayfleet's preschool-age sister, Poppy, discovers a mysterious box in the closet of their home ... a box apparently left behind by an ancestor who was also the city's seventh mayor. Lina's granny (with whom she lives) faintly recalls that the box was important. But she can't remember why.
Doon's path crosses Lina's on Assignment Day—the day teens graduate from school to adult jobs in the city. And as Ember's power outages grow longer, Doon and Lina race against time to decipher confusing clues in an ever-deepening mystery. Hidden tunnels. Cryptic instructions. Monstrous creatures lurking in the shadows.
Piece by piece, the picture becomes clear: Ember wasn't designed to be a permanent home for humanity, only a temporary shelter. The people must return to the surface.
But someone, it seems, doesn't want them to get there.
City of Ember showcases the values of hard work, family and pursuing the truth even if others discourage you.
Personal career plans don't play well in a society built around sheer survival. And in Ember, adults are randomly assigned lifetime occupations. Despite that, most of Ember's citizenry admirably shoulder their responsibilities. Pipe fitters stop leaks. Electricians tend to the power grid. Greenhouse keepers ensure production of fresh food to complement stored canned goods. And so on.
Doon's father, Loris, encourages the virtues of hard work and perseverance. Loris tells Doon that he has little control over life circumstances ("What you get, you get"), but that his response to those circumstances is what really matters ("What you do with what you get is more the point").
Both Doon and Lina come from loving, if fractured, families. Lina lives with and cares for her elderly granny. (We learn that her parents were killed years before in an accident.) And Lina also tends to the needs of her younger sister. In essence, she's assuming adult responsibilities even before she graduates into the adult world of Ember, putting the needs of her family before her own. When Granny quietly passes away following a respiratory illness (we see her in her bed when she doesn't wake up), Lina and Poppy go to live with a kindhearted family friend named Mrs. Murdo.
As Doon and Lina inch closer to uncovering the secret of Ember's builders—and the escape plan they engineered—the teens repeatedly come to each other's rescue in moments of peril. Several other characters, including a greenhouse custodian and an aging pipeworks laborer, also place their lives on the line in the service of the quest for the truth.
[Spoiler Warning] Loris initially discourages Doon from trying to find an escape from the city. But we learn that Loris is doing so because a similar venture took the lives of several of his friends when he was much younger. Eventually Loris changes his mind, though, and encourages his son to continue pursuing the quest that he abandoned himself.
Lina discovers that an acquaintance her age has been stealing food in her role as a warehouse steward. Though the young thief tries to rationalize her behavior by saying there's so little food remaining that it doesn't matter, Lina tells her that what she's doing is still wrong.
There is no mention of God or of anything explicitly spiritual. And from a certain perspective, City of Ember looks like a decidedly humanist affair. However, an annual city-wide celebration has a quasi-religious feel. Once a year, Ember residents gather to celebrate the Great Day of Singing, which is marked by rehearsals and a song that feels like one part Pledge of Allegiance, one part old gospel hymn. Residents praise the lights that make their existence in the darkness possible, singing, "When the light is on, hope is everlasting."
A small group of devout, robed singers (Mrs. Murdo among them) believe that Ember's original builders will eventually return and "show us the way." Mrs. Murdo and her compatriots are depicted as naive at best and vaguely cult-like at worst. Lina clearly considers the group out of touch with the reality that Ember's generator and infrastructure are indeed on their last legs ... and that no one is, in fact, coming to save them. Likewise, Loris describes his loss of hope for an escape from Ember in almost religious terms when he tells Doon, "The builders abandoned us."
While almost everyone has given up hope that there's any light outside of Ember, Doon and Lina believe that there's a way out. Thus, the story could also be seen as a parable about moving from darkness to light.
After Lina becomes a messenger, the first message she delivers is, "If this is a potato, then I'm 16 and sexy." A young woman says that she has a boyfriend.
City of Ember's two most suspenseful scenes involve a giant, marauding mole that's the size of, say, a hippo. It chases Lina and Doon, who narrowly avoid the squirming, tentacle-like feelers around its mouth and the long claws on its feet. Another character gets cornered later on. He isn't so lucky, and it's implied that the mole does him in. (We see the creature's mouth open as it lunges at him.)
The mayor and an unsavory lout named Looper have a scuffle following a disagreement, and the mayor hits him a couple of times. The mayor's lackeys handle Lina roughly as she's dragged to his office. Looper tosses Doon out of a secret food storage room—flinging him bodily onto the street. A man who's illegally ventured outside the city is treated roughly by authorities. Some children hit a woman for no apparent reason, another sign that Ember's heretofore orderly existence is breaking down.
Lina, Doon and Poppy are subjected to a breathtaking ride in a small, three-person boat. At times it's like a log ride at an amusement park. And as they're tossed up and down, this way and that, the sequence also brings to mind the mine-cart scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A general sense of suspense permeates the activities that drift into various dimly lit tunnels beneath Ember's streets.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
The mayor has clearly abused his power by hoarding much of what little food the city has left. Camera shots of his telltale belly hint at this character deficiency. Later, Lina and Doon find him asleep with a half-eaten can of food in his hand amid a cellar full of rations no one knows about. With his secret out, the mayor promptly seeks to detain the two teens and keep them from revealing his corruption. It's hinted that the mayor may also know about the city's long-forgotten escape plan—and that he has one of his own. But that's never made explicit.
City of Ember is a peculiar movie. As post-apocalyptic action flicks go, it has remarkably few content concerns. The two scenes with the mutated mole are the worst of it, along with some mild fisticuffs and moments of suspense. It's a rare film these days, even among those labeled as "family friendly," that has so few problems. So it would seem that Walden Media continues its commitment to bringing enjoyable, restrained stories to the big screen.
Digging a bit deeper, though, there may be a bit more going on here. On the surface, City of Ember is an engaging story about two teens whose determination to find the truth and challenge the status quo ends up saving humanity. And the consistent theme of moving from darkness to light could even be interpreted as having spiritually meaningful undertones.
On the other hand, the film arguably suggests that neither organized religion nor politics will provide the solutions that society desperately needs. For that matter, adults generally seem unwilling to consider new ways of looking at the world or solving problems. While it would be a stretch to call these messages subversive, neither the "spiritually faithful" nor public leaders tasked with shepherding the city garner much praise here. The former are hopelessly untethered from reality, while the latter are too crooked to be trusted. In the end, Doon and Lina can only trust themselves—a message that's both deeply humanist and pretty pessimistic at the same time.
Speaking of pessimism, consider for a moment City of Ember's setting: We never know exactly why humans were forced underground, whether the catalyst was global ecological disaster or perhaps a nuclear war. All we're told is that the scientists believed it would take 200 years before the earth would be habitable again. "On the day the world ended," a voiceover tells us, "The fate of mankind was carried in a small metal box."
Stories about the end of the world are nothing new, of course. But not so very long ago, they were aimed primarily at older audiences. In her article "Unhappily Ever After," Newsweek columnist Karen Springen writes, "Once upon a time, doomsday stories—War of the Worlds, Planet of the Apes—were adults-only fare. Today one of the hottest segments of children's literature is about surviving the end of the world."
And, indeed, City of Ember is based on a bestselling children's book of the same name.
"We have more ways of ending the world than we had before," says Jeanne DuPrau, who wrote the book. "These are big, hard truths that are facing kids, and they need to know these things."
Whether they need to know these things or not is still debatable, of course. But the fact that they do indeed stumble upon them is incontestable. And families are going to have to individually grapple with how a film like City of Ember fits into that not-always-slow-enough growing up process. If it does fit, it should certainly be used to spark conversation and learning, not just serve as mindless entertainment. But that path is opened up in this case—far more than it normally is when it comes to movies—by the aforementioned restraint shown by the film's makers