For the “only light in a dark world” the city of ember is, well, kind of a shithole. Established as an underground shelter when mankind was on the brink of extinction, the city is now 200 years old, and its residents have forgotten most of their history and technology, leaving them unable to grow edible food or maintain their infrastructure, relying helplessly on canned food and a generator installed by the deified “Builders” for survival — both running low. The food supply dwindles to a crisis level, while blackouts — more than an inconvenience in a bunker buried beneath the surface of the earth — become increasingly frequent and prolonged. Mayor in charge of it all is prosthetic-paunched Bill Murray, denying the crisis like only a politician can. This all sounds like the premise for a subversive, kick-ass movie, but the allegorical plot becomes bogged down in the details as the film struggles to cram Duprau’s 300 page young-adult novel into an hour and a half. For all the attention Murray’s roll is getting, he is really only a minor character, not really significant enough to be labeled the film’s antagonist even. Most screen time is dedicated to teens Doon (Treadaway) and Lina (Ronan), apparently the only of Ember’s citizens with a sense of self-preservation. When Lina finds a long-lost case — incredibly misplaced for several generations inside her senile grandmother’s closet — detailing evacuation plans and entrusted to the town’s first mayor by the Builders, the kids try to decipher its meaning before their town, quite possibly the last human civilization on earth, descends into total darkness. The real enemy seems to be the general apathy and fatalism with which the other Emberites regard the real likelihood that they’ll soon be trapped underground without food or light.
Lina’s guardian, Mrs. Murdo (Mary Kay Place), details the apparent contingency plan for most of the populist — waiting for the Builders to return and fix everything. Sound like a certain fundamentalist approach to our own planet’s crises? The social commentary here is obvious but ineffective, another promising element that eventually disappoints, diagnosing mankind’s most obvious symptoms without offering a cure, and sacrificing any meaningful analysis in order to rush toward an unsuspenseful climax at a pace deemed kid-appropriate. Ember’s biggest flaw is an unforgivable sin in a kids movie: underestimating the expectations of its audience. Murray crosses that fine line between his signature low-key and his signature not even pretending to try and catnaps on the other side while Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Tim Robbins, the film’s only other real stars, are basically furniture. The immersive set design — the run-down architecture and worn-out interiors look and feel like they’ve been lived in for two centuries — is diminished by some crappy CGI critters. And, worst, the film grows less engaging as the action rises, disinterestedly chronicling the race to save humanity without first convincing us that there’s something worth saving. •