DVD Release Date:  January 20, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  October 10, 2008
Rating:  PG (for mild peril and some thematic elements)
Genre: Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time:  95 min.
Director:  Gil Kenan
Actors:  Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, B.J. Hogg, Mary Kay Place, David Ryall, Ian McElhinney, Mackenzie Crook, Amy Quinn, Catherine Quinn

Much like this past summer’s Pixar gem Wall·E, City of Ember also explores the aftermath of the end of the world in a decidedly family-friendly format. And while it’s never quite explained what exactly led to Earth’s untimely demise, there are still glimmers of life, thanks to an underground city appropriately named Ember.

Consider yourself warned, though. To fully appreciate this apocalyptic adventure, a full suspension of disbelief is definitely required. Basically when it’s all said and done, there are countless details the audience is just supposed to roll with—namely what provoked a group of scientists, simply referred to as The Builders, to fashion what’s essentially a lo-fi city strung together by stray wires and twinkling Christmas tree lights. Apparently they knew something that everyone else didn’t, but why?

Whatever made The Builders construct a slightly more sophisticated fallout shelter, they also had the foresight to know that their brilliant invention wouldn’t stand the test of time, even leaving behind a set of specific instructions on how to escape Ember’s man-made confines. Over time, however, these instructions are misplaced, which of course plays a vital part in the story.

Meanwhile in Ember, we’re briefly introduced to a few of the city’s inhabitants. There’s the portly mayor (Bill Murray) who you can’t help but get a bad feeling about immediately, given his insatiable appetite for attention and the people’s approval.  And there’s Mr. Harrow (Tim Robbins) who has all but given up on the possibility that life exists outside of Ember, much to the chagrin of his headstrong son Doon (Harry Treadaway) who, much like the son did in Bee Movie, just received his “assignment” (a.k.a. first job) as a pipe layer. This wasn’t the gig that Doon had originally drawn from the hat, mind you, but after he traded with his pal Lina (Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan from Atonement), who was far more excited about being a messenger than he was, Doon couldn’t wait to have access to the city’s rapidly deteriorating generator. Hoping to fix the city’s frequent problem of blackouts, which were getting longer as the days passed, Doon was determined to make a difference, even if his dad constantly discouraged his efforts. 

But aside from this quick set-up, we don’t really learn much more about the characters—what drives them, what makes them tick. Really, this story could’ve involved anyone, and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference (something the book on which the movie is based probably fleshed out far better). Thankfully, the lack of character development is mostly made up for with an unraveling mystery that gets more intriguing with each new discovery.

Like the majority of the stories that Walden Media adapts for the big screen, children are the heroes yet again when Lina has a hunch that the shreds of paper she’s been piecing together at her grandma’s house are the secret instructions for escaping Ember—or at least for reviving it somehow. And as the days grow darker and infinitely more terrifying and uncertain, she and Doon are determined to unlock the mystery before the situation in Ember gets any worse.