City of Ember begins with the end of the world.
Knowing that an unrevealed cataclysmic event (war? disease? environmental crisis?) will soon eliminate human life, a group of scientists create an underground city called Ember where civilization will go on. It's basically a giant fallout shelter shaped into a city—complete with brownstones, brick streets, and a city-square fountain—spread out under an impressive web of light bulbs and wires.
Of course, the city's architects—identified as The Builders—know it's only temporary. Ember's tremendous generator cannot run forever. The canned food won't last infinitely. And so, hoping that humans can again live on Earth's surface in 200 years, they put a sort of expiration date on Ember. They install a turn-key operation into the city that will easily and safely allow the survivors to leave their underground world. They then leave behind complete instructions about getting to this new life above ground.
But over time, the instructions are lost and forgotten.
More than 200 years go by and the over-extended Ember is crumbling. It is way past its expiration date. The generator is dying. Food is running out. No one remembers that there's more to life than Ember and the darkness surrounding it. No one knows that an escape plan even exists. But a young girl named Lina (Atonement's Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan) stumbles onto part of an ancient message and is sure that it holds the secret to leaving Ember. She and her friend Doon (Harry Treadaway) must unravel the mystery before Ember's lights go out forever.
In a time of war, ecological concerns, economic unrest, and continual worry for our world's future, it is no surprise to see a run of dystopian, fear-filled, end-of-the-world movies like Children of Men, I Am Legend, The Happening, Cloverfield, etc. The science fiction and horror genres have long been fertile ground for filmmakers and storytellers to explore these themes. What is interesting, though, is that two 2008 films—WALL*E and City of Ember—have mixed the apocalyptic with family-friendliness. Make no mistake: City of Ember is a good family film and apocalyptic sci-fi. In fact, it's best described as Logan's Run (1976) for kids—with a little of 12 Monkeys and Children of Men mixed with '80s kid adventures like The Goonies.
The compelling mystery/thriller has all the right ingredients for success. The cast features two Oscar nominees (Ronan and a well-cast Bill Murray) and two Oscar winners (Tim Robbins and Martin Landau). It is produced by the usually dependable Tom Hanks and directed by the promising young auteur of Monster House. And, as is the case with most films from Walden Media, it is also based on a beloved children's book—this one by author Jeanne DuPrau. The screenplay is by the writer of The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Secret Garden, and Edward Scissorhands. With City of Ember, the studio adds another victory to its hit (Charlotte's Web, Holes, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Because of Winn-Dixie) and miss (Hoot, Around the World in 80 Days, The Seeker) record.
The movie brings DuPrau's visionary world of wonder alive with fervor and energy. The story moves quickly: hitting plot points at a sprint and creating great tension. But the ill side effect of that slam-bang pace is that we don't get to enjoy or explore Ember enough. Worse, we don't get to know the characters very well. While I'm sure their characterizations and personalities were deeper in the books, the movie's Lina and Doon are pretty much just figures who react to things. And while there isn't as much journey and adventure as I'd have guessed from the trailers, the film is full of discovery, charm, fun and deeper themes.
It's in these deeper messages where I, as a Christian and film lover, was most impressed. While I am not sure how intentional (I know nothing about DuPrau's faith life, although Walden Media was founded mostly by Christians), City of Ember is a wonderful metaphor for the Christian life. In fact, while the story may not have been deliberately meant this way by DuPrau, it's an excellent example of how Christian storytelling and parable can evoke a very real pull to the supernatural—without beating anyone over the head with conversion scenes or preachiness.
Obviously, like in WALL*E, filmgoers will see in Ember very clear environmentalism messages. After all, Ember is a city with finite resources running low. But there's something greater here that taps into the supernatural worldview of Christianity. The world around Ember is broken and crumbling—and all around it is darkness. There are many different thought processes among the citizens about their fate. Some believe the Builders had a plan and will—somehow—guide them to a better world. The kind, cheerful woman who cares for Lina and her sister (Mrs. Murdo) is one of those who believes. She tells the worried, distraught Lina, "The Builders will come again."
One character believes that there may be a reality beyond the darkness, but she chooses to focus solely on life in the broken world. She says, "I thought it was our duty to stay here and make things better." Some characters are beaten down by the bleakness; Doon's dad says, "The builders abandoned us."
Doon's response? "No they didn't. They left instructions."
These instructions are what lead Lina and Doon to realize that their tiny, crumbly world is not the whole story. Once they find the truth, they must find a way to share this path of truth with those still bound in the broken world. My favorite scene occurs in the midst of this: The entire city of Ember is congregated in the center of town when bizarre, seemingly devastating things begin to happen. It's clear that most people think that Ember has finally reached its end. But Mrs. Murdo and her believing friends begin to joyfully hug and celebrate. They know that there's a greater world awaiting them. This isn't the beginning of the end. It's a new beginning.Discussion starters
- How is the city of Ember like the world we live in? If Ember is seen to represent our world, then how would you compare and contrast the Builders and God?
- Doon's dad repeatedly says, "If you have truth, you have to pursue it." What does this mean?
- While Lina and Doon want to leave Ember for a promising better place, one character says she's always stayed in Ember to "make things better." While Christians anticipate going to heaven, how can they do their duty to make things better? How do they, as the Bible says, bring God's kingdom to earth?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Rated PG for mild peril and some thematic elements, City of Ember is very clean and family-friendly. The kids are put in some scary situations—including scenes with a giant, vicious mole and an adult physically restraining (and even pushing around) a young girl. Parents of younger children will want to be aware that two young girls discover their dead grandmother in bed. The grandma is shown still and discolored. There is very little discussion of the death, mourning or loss before the film moves on.
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