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For the good of all mankind, the city of Ember was built underground to protect the future of the human race against an unspecified disaster that made living on the Earth’s surface impossible.

City of Ember
Encased within a small box, that would be passed from mayor to mayor until the two-hundred year old lock opened, were instructions for the citizen’s of Ember on how to venture back out onto the Earth. However the box was lost and all but forgotten and now Ember’s generator is on the verge of total shutdown and the lights are about to go out for good.

It could be argued that fantasy stories in movies are at an all time high—at least on sheer numbers. Since the return of Star Wars and the huge success of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the gateway opened to let in anything that played with mythology and prophecies and what-not. We’ve had and are still living with Potter mania, we’ve had a double serving of Narnia Chronicles and all that Golden Compass business had its moment in the sun as well. There are a whole host of others that have got in on the action as well but for me, I was prophesied-out a few Potters back and the idea of sitting down to watch a two hour plus fantasy movie retreading all the same ole steps is about as exciting as, well... watching The Golden Compass again. No thank you very much.

City of Ember
City of Ember, the new movie from Monster House director Gil Kenan, had me intrigued back when the movie was first announced. The premise of an electric powered city with the lights going out was good, but having Bill Murray in it was the tipping point. Yet, despite the generally good reviews and a great trailer I didn’t get round to seeing it at the cinema. Maybe it was the TV spots selling it as just another kid’s fantasy movie, or there being lots of competition for my movie pound on the big screen in 2008. Either way, City of Ember didn’t happen for me—until now.

Pretty much from the get go, City of Ember shines out as the sort of movie that doesn’t get made any more. As Gil Kenan also managed with Monster House, this has the feel of the older eighties adventure flicks that Amblin seemed to generate with ease. There’s a real sense of the realism in the adventure, despite the entire concept revolving around an underground city powered by a generator. All of the characters feel as if this is just their day to day lives and it has been for a few generations, the Ember citizens come and go as if in a real society and the sheer fear involved in the intermittent black outs is absolutely convincing. The city is dying and no one seems to have a clue how to fix it.

City of Ember
That is until we meet Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway), a teenager who’s just been assigned a job in the pipe-works. He doesn’t know what he can do to help Ember, but he wants to try, he wants to see the generator, and he wants to be sure that everything that can be done is being done. Doon alone is a character that refreshes the current fantasy climate. He’s not born to do this. It’s not his destiny; he never read it in a dusty old book or was told it by a dying wizard. He’s not the ‘Chosen One’. He’s just a boy and he believes he can make a difference, aided or not.

While Doon is trying to find his own way in the pipe-works, Luna Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan), recently assigned the role of a messenger, is discovering things about Ember as well. A plot involving the stashing of the town’s food, the lying to the townspeople and on top of all that she’s found a box that seems to be from the builders of Ember giving instructions of how the people may leave the city when the two-hundred years were up.

City of Ember
So yeah, I know what you’re thinking, two kids, some instructions, a wild adventure begins. You’d be forgiven for turning your nose up at that. The god awful cover art for the Blu-ray probably even forces you to draw that negative conclusion if you’re all fantasy’d out, but City of Ember provides so much more than that. It’s a movie that unfolds carefully, the plot first wraps you up with what’s at stake and naturally takes you through its events with these two characters that happen to be teenagers at the forefront of it all. We find out that past generations have tried and failed to save Ember, we see that many of adults are content in their lives in Ember, turning to faith or indifference and this just strengthens your connection with these kids as they push on through the restraints of their failing world.

City of Ember feels like something special. It’s packed with brilliant performances, which thankfully include the two teenage leads, Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway. They are believable, they never do anything stupid or ‘cool’ to get a reaction from the audience and they are making legitimate choices and/or mistakes as they try to figure out exactly what they need to do. This is so refreshing for the genre; I mean how many fantasy movies fail because of the annoying kids?

That’s not all though. You have some other big guns that make this work. For starters Bill Murray is playing a character that is quite literally classic Bill Murray. I’m talking Ghostbusters Murray or Groundhog Day Murray. He’s funny, laid back, dark, and just plain enjoyable, his responses to the kids’ assignments alone is a classic Bill Murray moment for the books (‘We have a mould scraper’). Also along for the ride is Tim Robbins, playing Doon’s dad. I love roles like this. Small little moments where he backs his son up or helps the cause just comes packed with heart and the same can be said for Martin Landau’s Sul, Doon’s elderly mentor in the pipe-works. I’ve loved Landau’s work for the last fifteen or so years and this is yet another role that he manages to bring more to than the role probably dictated. It’s only a small part but he makes it shine.

City of Ember
As you can probably see by the glowing review and the 10/10 score, I’ve got nothing bad to say about City of Ember. It’s one of those movies that took me a while to get round to seeing, but I’m chuffed that I did. I’ve watched it a couple of times now and each time I’ve liked something I’d missed previously or had an even stronger response to some of its key moments. For me, it’s just one of those movies that comes along and sweeps you off your feet with its charm and one hundred percent pulls off what it set out to achieve.

Video


City of Ember is a movie that is soaked in reds and browns and all of the different variations end up looking pretty great on this Blu-ray. Textures also hold up well and the many items dotted around the lusciously expansive set’s all show themselves off well in HD, even if some detail isn’t the best the format can offer. In Ember’s darker scenes, that mostly come bathed in green, the transfer still holds up very well, with only a few tiny moments that get a little grimy.

I noticed a few scenes that had a bit of noticeable grain and a few areas looked a little soft in places, but these were minor occurrences and generally City of Ember has a transfer that impresses. The city's unnaturally lit atmosphere works wonders in HD, some of the large shots of the entire city or one particular journey out to the greenhouses were beautifully presented and overall [/i]City of Ember[/i] is a Blu-ray that does its job well.

City of Ember

Audio


From the opening scenes you get a feeling that this is going to be using the surrounds pretty consistently. For starters the score is a good one and fills the room in its more powerful moments with a nice use of the bass as well.

In the pipe-works, the entire surround system plays together nicely. The echoes sound strong in the front speakers and there’s always something adding texture in the rears. Creaking pipes, footsteps and machinery all play a part in layering the feeling of the confined space.

Where City of Ember really excels in the audio department is when the generator cuts out or indeed powers back up. The bass and all five speakers really hammer home just how much importance this event has on the citizens of Ember. When it happens you get a sense of urgency because of the surround mix and when the silence envelopes you, you are on edge until it returns with just as much power. It’s clever stuff.

City of Ember

Extras


On the surface this looked like it might be all a bit of nothing in the extras depart, and while they don’t exactly blow us all away runtime wise, there’s some nice insights here.

‘Ember Special Effects’ (04:25) takes a quick look at effects in the movie and sort of feels like one of those late seventies/ early eighties featurettes that had that laid back attitude to SFX. ‘The Largest Set in the World’ (04:15) looks at the massive Ember set built in Belfast. It features lots of cast and crew interviews on the practical set and really shows off the enormity of what was made.

‘Doon, Luna & Poppy’ (06:00) are interviews with the three kids in the movie and their takes on the story and the making of it while ‘Fox Channel Presents: Making of a Scene’ (10:43) is the meatiest of the extras, featuring interviews with the director and producer Tom Hanks and running us through the making of the scene where Doon sees the generator for the first time and how important it was to get the right feeling in that moment. It’s actually very good despite only being just shy of eleven minutes in length.

To finish, there are trailers for He's Just Not That Into You and Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

City of Ember

Overall


City of Ember is a late entry to my favourite movies of 2008. It’s well paced, nicely plotted and has a bunch of characters you can believe in without relying on the dull fantasy clichés that have become the norm of late.

The disc is solid in the A/V department and has some okay features, but the movie is more than strong enough to make it one that I can’t recommend highly enough. This is one that I know I'll be going back to a lot in future years and while it’s doubtful they’ll release an uber special edition anytime soon, I’d imagine that City of Ember is the sort of movie that will generate a fan base on home release and later TV airings. For now I'm happy with what we have, because City of Ember proves that you don’t need to have a chosen one to be a fantasy movie

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release. Thanks to Jacob for providing the screen caps.


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