The following was an old blog post of mine from January 2010 originally titled, “Movie Review #2 – City of Ember.” All changes have only been made to the grammar and not the content.
Escape movies are just plain fun & are very good at holding your attention, although great character development is essential, otherwise whether they escape or not is irrelevant, especially when at that unfortunate point all you want is for the movie to crash, burn, & then end. For its sake, City of Ember is of the former persuasion.
Assuming some sort of survivalist scenario occurred, it would seem to be the case that it was necessary for the human race to relocate many miles below the earth’s surface in order to survive. References are made that they are the only light in an otherwise dark world, suggesting that either the sun has been greatly diminished or even destroyed somehow. Add to that that a gargantuan beetle invades Ember, this further suggests that whatever the calamity was also adversely affected animals up at the surface for ~200 years to the extent that at least some of them have vastly increased in size, potentially due to a nuclear radiation of some kind (possibly due to MAD).
The film opens with the role that the time-locked box plays, since it contains the only information for how to leave the city. Of course the corrupt mayor (Bill Murray) doesn’t want anyone to leave, since his little fiefdom stands to lose political power should his people have the very real option of going topside, hence the illegality of even exploring the area outside the city at the same depth. The biggest reason to escape the city is the fact that the Generator (which is the sole source of power for Ember) is failing because it wasn’t designed to work longer than 200 years, resulting in longer blackouts and more violent breakdowns.
Enter Lina & Doon, our teenage protagonists. During the city’s Assignment Day, which eerily parallels an early scene from Ayn Rand’s Anthem where the Council of Vocations hands out life Mandates to graduating students, Ember’s new influx of labor pick out their job slips literally out of a hat that the mayor holds. Afterwords, Lina exchanges jobs with Doon since both were unsatisfied by what the Establishment had bestowed on them. Within the space of less than 5 minutes, the film shows two completely different systems; collectivism vs. laissez-faire free market trade. The explication of coercive arbitrary force vs. voluntary mutual consent is fantastic for showing the latter as being the superior situation whereby both parties are better off for trading, otherwise they wouldn’t do it. Lina achieved her desired job of being a Messenger running around Ember while Doon admittedly is better off by working in Pipeworks, which places him closer to the Generator to which he believes such possible access could enable him to potentially solve the worsening blackouts.
Lina & Doon progress in solving the escape instructions the Builders had left in the box and eventually catch the mayor red-handed illegally hording necessary food supplies that had been listed on the official supply lists as being empty. As you can probably guess, the mayor gets wind of the box, thereby throwing both protagonists into being fugitives of the state. As per THX 1138, Lina, Doon, & Lina’s younger sister escape far enough from Ember that they aren’t fugitives anymore. When they do reach topside, the sun rises, showing all the plant life around the entrance to the cave they emerged from. Their final act before walking off into the horizon is to drop a rock with a message of success down into Ember, which luckily comes into the possession of Doon’s dad (Tim Robbins), who had attempted to escape several decades earlier. This implies that he will lead a renewed resistance into escaping, especially considering that the mayor got eaten by that huge beetle creature.
There are numerous puzzle solving elements throughout the movie that both protagonists either on their own or together must solve in order to effect their eventual escape. Sul, Doon’s perpetually snoozing boss, holds open a breaking down turbine in order to allow a surge of water to carry the canoe holding the survivor trio high enough over the other turbine, behind which is the waterslide tunnel that takes them closer to the exit. Most of the action is intellectually based in that the tension of escaping & evading the governmental forces takes precedence; the best weapons Lina & Doon possess are solving puzzles as well as a combination of running & hiding.
The film is redeemed by the fact that Lina & Doon’s desire to live & be free drives them to escape a crumbling fiefdom infrastructure. Even if there was no corrupt politician making things more difficult than they had to be, Lina & Doon would still attempt to escape since the Generator was irreparably failing, thus sustainability was not possible, even though Ember inhabitants were lied to about the severity of their situation. Rand’s protagonist, Equality 7-2521, does exactly the same thing, although he better explains how his now anarchic lifestyle was superior to the supposed security of the society that he escaped from.
The following quotes from Anthem relate to City of Ember quite well:
“But what is freedom? Freedom from what? There is nothing to take a man’s freedom away from him, save other men. To be free, a man must be free of his brothers. That is freedom. This and nothing else.” – Equality 7-2521 (aka Prometheus)
“I owe nothing to my brothers, nor do I gather debts from them. I ask none to live for me, nor do I live for any others. I covet no man’s soul, nor is my soul theirs to covet.” – Equality 7-2521 (aka Prometheus)
“I shall call to me all the men and the women whose spirit has not been killed within them and who suffer under the yoke of their brothers. They will follow me and I shall lead them to my fortress. And here, in this uncharted wilderness, I and they, my chosen friends, my fellow-builders, shall write the first chapter in the new history of man.” – Equality 7-2521 (aka Prometheus)