Flimsy Characters Fizzle Along ‘Ember’ Quest

    On paper, “City of Ember” reads like a recipe for cinematic success. Based on a best-selling novel trailing the underground adventures of two mousy kids, the flick is produced by famed family man Tom Hanks and swamped with award-winning actors, including Saoirse Ronan (the Chloe Sevigny lookalike of “Atonement” fame), Bill Murray and Tim Robbins — even director Gil Kenan has his “Monster House” Oscar credentials. Unfortunately, all the prestigious guest lists and shiny lights in Hollywood can’t salvage this snoozer.

    “City of Ember” may have an impressive cast, but their abilities are never exercised, leaving character development on the back burner. Instead, we witness a rare cinematic occasion, in which a gaggle of esteemed talent squawks like amateurs of their craft. The characters never mature from their expository shells and, consequently, never forge emotional connections with the audience. The entire first act is a tedious observation of mundane go-abouts — yet we’re shorted insight into the motivation behind such routine activities.

    For instance, when introduced to Doon Harrow’s (Harry Treadaway) raving obsession with repairing the city’s only generator, we’re never given reasoning for this degree of fervor. Is he attempting to redeem his father’s failures, or simply working for the sake of goodness?

    Similarly, Lina Mayfleet (Ronan) is introduced as a child burdened with the task of looking after both her grandmother and younger sister — yet, we’re never certain as to how she’s even capable of upholding this mature responsibility. With only foggy character details and flimsy reasoning, it’s impossible to keep our attention span from fizzling out. Unsurprisingly, the insubstantial characters fail to tell a compelling story. By the time the first act snails past, our sense of detachment has stunted all dramatic intrigue. Since the cast functions as little more than a rigid plot mechanism, any feeble stab at depicting heated suspense or climactic action is in vain. When the protagonists are forced to solve a number of challenging puzzles to escape their disintegrating underground city, we’re left to wonder how they’re even capable of making such brilliant decisions under pressure. How did Doon realize that the arbitrary symbol on the door was actually a keyhole, or Lina think to look behind the lockers to discover the secret passageway? There’s weak basis to our heroes’ wisdom, and this ultimately strips their trials and tribulations of all believability.

    But “City of Ember” isn’t completely without merit — its one redeeming factor lies in phenomenal art direction. Vividly inspired compositions of color and light work to create a breathtaking dream world. Where attention to character and story progression feels a halfhearted sketch, visual aesthetics painstakingly fill in the lines. In the opening scene — as we’re introduced to the Builders of Ember — we follow the bright royal blue of a founding father as he walks through the pearly white of a long hallway, creating jarring contrast in his wake. When the camera pans over Ember, the pathwork of a city drenched in glorious orange hues suddenly transpires from the darkness of its surroundings.

    While expertly fashioned, the almost too-pretty aesthetics can’t salvage our suspense of disbelief, already shred by unlikable protagonists and cumbersome storytelling. At no point does Ember seem post-apocalyptic — not to mention capable of housing one of the last civilizations of humanity.

    Of course, if defined by only outstanding art direction, then “City of Ember” is truly a modern achievement in filmmaking. But since a great story can’t rest on its digitally rendered haunches, the kid flick has little hope of “Harry Potter” heights.

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