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Originally published Thursday, October 9, 2008 at 2:50 PM

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Movie Review

"City of Ember": Heroes rise up from dystopian detritus

The family fantasy "City of Ember" — directed by Gil Kenan ("Monster House") and starring Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway — is an engrossing adaptation of Jeanne Duprau's novel about a futuristic underground city.

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Harry Treadaway plays one of the teens who disturbs the status quo by planning a way out of a subterranean city in "City of Ember."

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WALDEN MEDIA / TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Harry Treadaway plays one of the teens who disturbs the status quo by planning a way out of a subterranean city in "City of Ember."

Movie review 3 stars

"City of Ember," with Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Mary Kay Place, Martin Landau, Harry Treadaway, Saoirse Ronan, Toby Jones. Directed by Gil Kenan, from a screenplay by Caroline Thompson, based on a novel by Jeanne Duprau. 95 minutes. Rated PG for mild peril and some thematic elements. Several theaters.

Though "City of Ember" is a bit hurried in execution — it would have been nice to have spent more time lingering in the daily rhythms of its thoroughly imagined world — this first live-action film by director Gil Kenan ("Monster House") has the subterranean feel of a dream being described.

Truly subterranean. Based on a novel by Jeanne Duprau, "City of Ember" is a dystopian movie for kids about an underground city built, as one concludes from a sketchy preface, during some kind of apocalyptic disaster on Earth's surface. Wise eggheads and authority figures, more or less during our time, build Ember beneath their feet, intending it to be a safe haven designed for survivors and their descendants for the next 200 years.

The idea is that at the end of two centuries, Ember's occupants will find instructions hidden in a metal box that explain how to get back up to the Earth's surface. It doesn't work out that way, and the people of Ember, after 200 years, are like a lost tribe with its own mythos, empty rituals and corrupt leaders.

The city also has serious infrastructure problems (electricity, water, etc.), restless teens with unfulfilled talents and ambitions, and a history of repressing those trying to get beyond the city's limits.

Against this backdrop, a couple of kids (Harry Treadaway, Saoirse Ronan) annoy Ember's decadent mayor (Bill Murray) with their determination to find an urban exit. That part of the story plays out exactly as one might expect (and looks at times like outtakes from the recent version of "Journey to the Center of the Earth").

But what sticks with a viewer is not so much the film's action as its haunting environment: lights going off constantly and no one being sure they'll ever return; 200-year-old pipes patched and patched and patched again; giant rats rumbling through Ember's soggy corridors.

The film's wonderfully eclectic cast includes Martin Landau as a weary plumber, Tim Robbins as a secretive inventor, Toby Jones (Truman Capote in "Infamous") as the mayor's factotum and Mary Kay Place as a beaming evangelist who believes Ember's long-forgotten "builders" will one day return.

The broken-down Ember's design is both wholly original and sadly similar to our real world. Kenan avoids getting fussy about art direction (the way Terry Gilliam might have done once in a film like this) but doesn't shy from Ember's odd mix of retro and exotic influences.

Screenwriter Caroline Thompson ("The Addams Family," "Corpse Bride") does a typically fine job juxtaposing the honest, human emotions of her characters with the otherworldly darkness of their circumstances. When we see the main characters in "City of Ember" advance from nobodies to archetypes by the film's end, this story moves to rarefied territory.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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