“City of Ember” is new wine in a very old bottle, and a vintage that wasn't nearly given time to mature. The film adapts Jeanne Duprau's novel with visual flair and vague, clumsy storytelling.
As usual, two high school kids are given the task of saving civilization. Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) and Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) realize that Ember, a subterranean city built 200 years ago, is running out of energy.
They're aware of the world outside, though it was uninhabitable when Ember's city fathers built their refuge. They've seen the huge, mutated creatures that break into Ember from time to time: bumblebees the size of collies and a mole as large and destructive as a rogue elephant. Yet they believe civilization's only hope is to go back to Nature and stop relying on artificial, non-renewable power.
However huggably green this message may be in our current climate, it doesn't make for much of a movie here. Production designer Martin Laing gets credit for a fabulously labyrinthine set, and cinematographer Xavier Pérez Grobet simultaneously gives Ember the golden glow we associate with nostalgia and a look of industrial decay.
Otherwise, the film's a muddle. The power has been failing for decades, but no one has done anything about it. (I get the metaphor for our industrial society, but we're not going to die or go insane tomorrow because there's no more fresh air or total darkness has descended forever. We don't address our energy problems now precisely because they don't seem as imminent as they do in the film.)
Writer Caroline Thompson fudges too many details. The mayors of Ember preciously guard the founders' instructions for an escape plan for decades, until…they just forget about it. Doon's inventor father (Tim Robbins) builds a tool that turns out to be useful in multiple ways, though he had no idea those uses existed when he built it. Our heroes manage to climb around a wooden greenhouse absolutely silently, while the corrupt mayor's chief aide stands a few feet away.
The cast includes veterans in small roles: blasé Bill Murray as the shady mayor, Toby Jones as his assistant, Mackenzie Crook (of “Pirates of the Caribbean”) as a creepy hoarder, Marianne Jean-Baptiste as a kindly gardener.
Martin Landau, still gumming the scenery at 77, is actually in two movies opening today: this one, where he plays Doon's boss at the pipe works, and “Billy: The Early Years,” where he plays an atheist plunged into fear and trembling. I admire his stick-to-it-iveness, if not his picks.