A fabulously designed underground metropolis proves more involving than the teenagers running through its streets in “City of Ember,” a good-looking but no more than serviceable adaptation of Jeanne Duprau’s 2003 novel. Director Gil Kenan’s disappointing live-action follow-up to his enjoyable toon debut, “Monster House,” shows promising flickers of visual invention throughout, but the dramatic sparks fail to ignite in this simple-minded exercise in juvenile dystopia. Families may show interest initially, but long-term B.O. prospects look so-so.
A portentous opening voiceover tells of the subterranean city of Ember, built to shelter English-speaking, predominantly Caucasian humanity from undisclosed apocalyptic events transpiring on Earth’s surface. For reasons that have more to do with cool-sounding movie mythology than common sense, the builders decreed Ember would last for only 200 years — an important fact that has unfortunately fallen out of public awareness as the story proper begins.
With the clock just about wound down to zero, Ember, powered by a massive generator that’s seen better days, is experiencing random power outages and hostile incursions by giant bugs and the like. The fate of the city rests on the shoulders of two nosy, resourceful teens, Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan, “Atonement”) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway), who are quicker than the general populace to grasp that the time has come to leave Ember behind.
As red-caped Lina darts hither and yon in her capacity as a paid messenger, uncovering hidden clues and secret documents from the past, Kenan and d.p. Xavier Perez Grobet frame her movements in crane and tracking shots that showcase the city to striking widescreen effect. Martin Laing’s nifty production design gradually reveals itself as a funhouse marvel of interconnected pipes and waterways, ladders, corridors and secret rooms; set decorator Celia Bobak’s interiors are crammed with colored threads, bizarre contraptions and other clever throwaway details.
The film’s visual design is so captivating and unusual that, at a certain point, you wish you could ditch Doon, Lina and her mute-cute little sister (twins Amy and Catherine Quinn) and explore Ember on your own for a couple hours. But Caroline Thompson’s screenplay dutifully grinds its narrative gears and insists on turning these likable tykes into mini-saviors of mankind, pitting them against Ember’s self-serving, fat-cat Mayor Cole (Bill Murray, giving a lazy performance as a lazy man).
Corrupt politicians, visiting terrorists, an energy crisis and (eventually) a food shortage — “City of Ember” is nothing if not timely. But any potentially relevant subtexts are short-circuited by the lumbering nature of the story, which, despite the strenuous exertions of Andrew Lockington’s score, generates neither suspense nor a sense of wonder. Kenan tries to goose the action by unleashing a hideous monster (looking like a cross between a sea anemone and a wild boar) that’s not only far too frightening for young tots but also completely at odds with the otherwise hum-drum tenor of the proceedings.
Tim Robbins as Doon’s dad and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Lina’s friend add some grown-up warmth in their too brief appearances, and it’s nice to see Martin Landau as a cantankerous pipe-worker. Climactic, Splash Mountain-style setpiece underlines the notion that “City of Ember” would have functioned better as a five-minute theme-park ride than as a 94-minute family film.