Viewing "City of Ember" took me back to memories of Siskel and Ebert arguing about children's films. Siskel inevitably panned the kiddie flicks for lacking depth, acting and plausibility. Ebert would accuse him of being a curmudgeon and then cite the films various charms... usually imagination and a healthy sense of adventure. And here I sit, of two minds... Siskel and Ebert sitting on my respective shoulders like a fat gray angel and sadly deceased devil.
The film itself is set in a post nuclear holocaust world where the last humans live in an underground city, waiting for the day when they can return to the surface. But somewhere along the way, everyone forgot about returning and are content to lead fearful and obedient lives in a grim subterranean 19th century London. Two young heroes shake off the city's collective torpor and make a predictably challenging yet successful dash for freedom.
Ebert, still reviewing films for the Chicago Sun-Times, actually illuminates most of the plot holes in his own lukewarm 2.5 star review. The most egregious gaffs (to me at least) were casting a 24 year old Harry Treadaway to portray a young adolescent, the use of a utilitool as a deus ex machina device, and the entirely unbelievable roller coaster ride toward the end. But Ebert the angel reminds me that roller coaster rides through a dark underground river delight the imagination... and creating a deeply immersive and imaginative setting is the film's primary strength. Then Siskel the devil whispers back, "Too bad the characters lack any compelling or imaginative dialogue."
At a deeper level though, Siskel and Ebert would probably agree on the film's transparent politics. The film's underlying symbolism is troubling for a politically left-leaning viewer like myself. As the primary villain, Bill Murray plays a gluttonous simpleton. His role as the obese mayor of the City of Ember, along with his two henchmen (one effete and the other club-footed,) create a clear portrayal of the enemy. They are fat, lazy, corrupt, and deformed. The heroes are young, attractive, strong and equally quick of foot and mind. This already calls to mind the sort of bigotry that permeated the film "300." And most telling, the two heroes are depicted as unnaturally eager to work hard, putting them in stark contrast to everyone else in the movie. Their challenge is to overcome the stagnation of their society and recapture humanity's potential. As such, they are Ayn Rand repackaged for the middle school set. Every social institution is portrayed as ineffective at best, and criminally corrupt at worst. Religion even takes it on the nose, portrayed as a bunch of head-in-the-sand singing enthusiasts.
It's a dangerously naive view of society (even in a microcosm) to depict it a grossly inept set of systems in desperate need of a savior. It sets up a very antisocial set of beliefs about being above the law, entitled to whatever freedoms you desire, and that rebellion is the only answer. But of course, stories marketed toward youth are unlikely to trumpet wisdom or temperance as worthwhile virtues. If the true test of a film like this is whether or not you'd take your kids to go see it... be forewarned that it's a libertarian manifesto posing as fantasy.
"City of Ember" is a rental (speaking objectively)