The story surrounds an important mission to save the world that is slowly turning dark, a corrupt mayor whose lust for power is more important to him than the people he is supposed to protect, and two brave heroes who are willing to risk everything they know in order to find a better future for those they love. Starring some iconic faces like Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones) and Harry Treadaway (Star Trek: Picard) in some of their earlier roles, as well as Bill Murray (Ghostbusters), the film has all the makings of a cult classic. It has remained popular despite mixed reviews at its first release.
The City of Ember tells the story of a world set far in the future, in which the surface world is no longer inhabitable due to a terrible disaster. In order to protect humanity, a congress of people known as ‘The Builders’ come together to design and implement an underground city, which will allow people to survive in the artificial light provided by a huge generator set to time out after around 200 years. The Builders place instructions on how to leave the city and return safely to the surface once the generator expires. The assumption is that by this time, the terrain above ground will have healed itself enough to support life once more, and humanity can return to begin rebuilding the lives they once knew. However, the instructions on how to leave the city are lost along the way, and the concept of the builders passes into legend. This leaves two young and courageous heroes to discover the forgotten secrets and lead their people to salvation.
Lina Mayfleet, played by Saoirse Ronan, is a plucky and spirited girl who looks after her ill grandmother and her younger sister after her parents tragically passed in a mysterious accident some years ago. Little does she know that their accident will lead her to Doon Harrow, whose father was also involved in what they later discover to have been an attempt to leave Ember. This dangerous decision came at a time when the generator has begun to run out of power, blackouts are frequent, and food is running short (whilst also being hoarded in secret by the greedy and corrupt mayor). To top it off, wild animals, far larger than their normal size, are beginning to force their way into the city. This element may be more fantasy than science, but it cleverly fuses together the concepts of real-world creatures now larger than life, and technology that presents the very key to survival. In fact, it is the sci-fi and technological aspects of the film that make it an intriguing and well-thought-out watching experience.
The day-to-day lives of the citizens involve running through the streets to deliver messages because they don’t have phone lines or emails — Lina's day-to-day job. Others patch up faulty pipes because they don’t have access to new supplies underground. Residents tie strings to one another so that they can find each other in the dark when the lights above them, their only source of hope and freedom, begin to flicker and go out. And yet, they are unwittingly living among a feat of engineering genius that the builders crafted centuries ago, which will provide the answers to all of their problems.
The lockers seen many times in the background shots of scenes, are actually boats, attached to a central mechanism of cogs and wheels that circulate them down a track and to a focal point that meets the river. It is here that a giant turbine elevates to reveal the secret way out of Ember. When Doon and Lina discover this, using a box that held instructions and the missing key to the control panel that operates the boat systems, they take the plunge and find their way back up to the surface world. There, a box of matches awaits the in the pitch black, and they climb an impossibly steep staircase upwards, to witness their first even sunrise. They are then able to get a message to Ember down below, and pave the way for others to follow in their footsteps.
But as fascinating and inventive — yet feasible — as the futuristic technology in the movie is, it is the people and the relationships that make the story truly golden. As with all enigmatic sci-fi classics, the film is less about the technological elements needed to survive an unforgiving future. It's more about celebrating humanity, and the ways in which humans can adapt and thrive by supporting one another in times of turmoil. In Doon and Lina’s bond, audiences find examples of real loyalty, and of following the voice inside even when all others try to drown that voice out. The City of Ember is a testament to friendship, to keeping hope alive, to broadening our horizons and continuing to learn. Above all else, it's about caring more about people than about material things.