“The City of Ember” – Film Review

THE-CITY-OF-EMBER-deluxe-cover

Like The Golden Compass, City of Ember skirts the edge of “true” Steampunk, but I have seen it on several Steampunk movie countdowns so I thought I’d check it out and snoop for Steampunkishness. Even though it is probably most accurately called “post-apocolyptic fiction”, there is a definite visual style that will appeal to Steampunk fans.

Streets of Ember

Streets of Ember

The story centers on two teenagers, Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway). We meet them on their Assignment Day when their entire future careers get determined by the luck of the draw. Doon is supposed to become a messenger, but he trades that choice job away to Lina in return for a chance to work under the city and gain access to the generator that supplies the lifeblood of Ember: electricity. Because Ember lies deep below the ground, safe from the terror that took place 241 years ago. Without the generator the entire population would be plunged into total darkness and the electric lights mounted all over the city is there only refuge from the abyss beyond.

Ember lights

But lately, the lights have begun to flicker.

Lina is delighted to become a messenger and dives into her duties with gusto. She is the grownup in her tiny family, which consists of a little sister named Poppy with a propensity for putting things in her mouth and a dear (though slightly crazy) grandmother who spends her days taking thread out of clothing and spooling it for reuse (no on has had new clothes for over a century). In the depths of a closet, Poppy uncovers a mysterious metal box that had belonged to a former mayor and proceeds to gnaw on the contents.

Lina and Doon

Lina and Doon

Lina recognizes the writing on the pages as coming from the revered and little understood “builders” who created Ember and, with the help of Doon, attempts to recreate the documents from the chewed mess. To their shock and amazement, they seem to be telling of a way out of Ember, and out of the danger of starvation and perpetual darkness. Can Lina and Doon overcome the rampant corruption in their government to discover the truth and lead the citizens of Ember to salvation?

I actually read the book by Jeanne DuPrau after the first time I saw the movie because there were some parts that felt really “cinematized” and a bit out of place. And it turns out that I was right, the film includes a few major changes from the book even beyond the theme park-like ride at the end of the movie that first made me say “huh?”

In the book, Doon keeps a caterpillar to observe it and is utterly fascinated by insects because the people of Ember never see things from above ground. In the film he finds a moth is easily 2 feet across, upping the visual ante but not staying true to the novel. There is also a completely terrifying star nosed mole as large as a hippopotamus that delivers the come-uppence to Ember’s corrupt mayor (played by Bill Murray), which never appeared in the book. Likely this is a reference to the nuclear cause of the apocalypse in the Prophet of Yonwood, the 2006 prequel to the “Books of Ember” trilogy, and mutations that could have follow. Personally, I did not like the change, I thought the book was already great without the novelty.

Ember gadgetThe other big change, which is probably the reason the movie ends up in Steampunk lists and the book does not, is the amount of gadgetry. In the movie, Doon’s father (Tim Robbins) is an inventor and Rube Goldberg type machines cook their breakfast, while in the book he runs a shop populated by old shoe heels and rusty nails. There are also scenes that take place in the huge industrial center under the city, but the tech is all there to create electricity so it is not very Steampunk in the end. But the gritty, dark ambiance and added mechanical gizmos definitely make you feel like you are in the past rather than the distant future.

Graphic NovelBoth the book and the film offer a lot to like, and I would actually recommend them both for different reasons. The City of Ember was also made into a graphic novel in 2012, so there are actually three different ways to enjoy this unique story!


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Like my reviews? Check out more cool stuff at my website!

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