by Cheryl Cruz
Ordinarily, by the time I decide to see a movie, I have a good idea what sort of experience to expect. I would have seen the previews, read a review or two, and maybe heard from friends what they thought of the film. But when my brother took me to see The City of Ember recently, I only knew what little the title gave away and the fact that it starred Bill Murray. And, as I took my seat among an auditorium full of kids and their parents, I also knew it was a kids’ movie which meant it would probably suck. I don’t dislike all kids’ movies, but except for a few exceptional films here and there, most of them just aren’t that good and are definitely not worth paying full price to see.
The opening scenes of the film explain the major dilemma of the story quite neatly. A city called Ember has been built underground so that a small portion of humanity can live on while the world above perishes in the Great Disaster. The problem is it’s designed to last only two hundred years but somehow the people of Ember have forgotten the finite nature if their city as its final years roll along. Hmm, I thought. But because of the goofy costumes and the unrealistic props they used, such as one of the most important props in the film, this metal box holding information the citizens of Ember would consider vital to their—as well as humanity’s—survival, I settled myself in for an alright movie experience. I had a delicious mango smoothie in my cup holder, my brother had paid for my ticket, I was in a lazy mood—if the movie was going to be less than believable or entertaining, I was still going to enjoy sitting around for awhile.
But not too long into the film, I started to let go of my low expectations, or any expectations for that matter. The city is introduced by way of something most of us can relate to, a school graduation ceremony. But here instead of getting a diploma, everyone graduating including the two main characters, Doon Harrow and Lina Mayfleet, perform the strange custom of picking their lifelong careers out of a dirty sac. Hmmm, that’s weird, I mused, but maybe not a bad way to go about things, considering.
The film chugs along for a while as Lina and Doon settle into their professions. Since I didn’t find them all that interesting I was glad to take in the details of their world: the grimy Disney Main Street like streets, the harsh indoor lighting indoors and out, the wonderfully weird feel to this reality, somewhere between Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The Wizard of Oz combined with a child’s version of The Road Warrior set underground. I found myself imagining what it would be like living there, a place without parks, or museums, or weather. What do they do with their trash? I wondered. Or their dead?
Moreover, if the city was only meant to last two hundred years (regardless of the whereabouts of some box) why wouldn’t they remember that? Wouldn’t the history of the founding of their city, the history of the world before Ember, let alone any knowledge that other places besides Ember ever used to exist have stayed with them? Wouldn’t some sort of cultural myth have sprung from the fact that they and their descendants are the last remaining hope for the survival of humanity? The film doesn’t bother explaining these things in depth but instead suggests how the people, instead of wallowing in what was lost or fearing what they may find—(their city is, after all, a gigantic underground bomb shelter)—have learned to cope by living in a kind of docile existence where nothing before or between Ember exists (despite some vague notion of the Builders) and everyone obediently picks their entire futures out of a sac.
What I at first took to be a failure in film making, the movie’s slow beginning, I realized towards the end might be a structural device, a way of mirroring the inertia felt by most of the people who are unwilling to consider that their city is about to die. As it becomes more and more evident to those aware enough to notice what’s happening, the pace quickens to a satisfying ending to make, overall, an enjoyable and at times, moving experience. True, perhaps the characters were not as well rounded as one might like, and there are a few other things one can gripe about. But hey, this is a kids’ movie. What do you expect?