City of Ember

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Somehow City
of Ember
slipped into theaters underneath my radar. On a
recent date with my wife, we saw this movie. I knew nothing about
it other than what ten seconds at imdb.com told me: science fiction.
My wife knew that it was perhaps a movie for kids. Suffice to say
the marketing didn't reach us. We weren't expecting anything more
than diversion.

The premise
of the movie, which is shown in the first minutes of the movie,
is that there was some sort of catastrophic event that caused a
group of people to build an underground city to preserve mankind – the
movie was not clear who, what or why. Just that something bad happened.
The builders of the city included a time-release box to give the
city dwellers instructions to get out when it was deemed safe. Just
another post-apocalyptic scenario.

The plot develops
somewhat formulaically out of the premise. Flash forward over 200
years. The city is falling apart – the electricity generating
system is starting to fail. Two young citizens take fate into their
own hands and are the first to escape with the help of the now found
time-release box. Sort of a science fiction take on coming of age.
Older viewers may see some parallels between City of Ember and
Logan's
Run
. But the plot is not why this movie is good.

Here’s the
interesting part: the portrayal of government.

Bill Murray,
fitted with a fat suit, plays the oily mayor of Ember. I can't readily
think of an actor better suited to play the role. He was sanctimonious
and knew better than the citizens of Ember. He may have had the
best role in the movie.

I wasn't paying
attention at first, but then the young people of Ember lined up
to have their careers selected for them. In a coming of age ceremony,
young citizens pulled job titles from a sack. In a total disregard
for ability or interest, jobs were assigned by chance. Doon Harrow
(Harry Treadaway) wants to become an apprentice at the generator
so he can help solve the black out problem, but instead draws an
assignment to the messenger service. His friend, Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse
Ronan) draws the pipeworks, which she swaps with Doon to perceived
mutual benefit.

On Lina's first
day at the messenger service, we find out that messengers are paid
a set amount to deliver verbal messages from one point to any other
point in Ember. This is where I started to get suspicious. That
sounded a little like the USPS. Then, Doon reports for duty at the
pipeworks. His mentor, played by Martin Landau, answers many of
his questions with one answer: "That's not my job."

The mayor even
had someone pilfering from the city’s dwindling food store for him.
In fact, there is one scene where the distribution of food is shown
in action, and it looks much more like a trip to renew one's license
plate than a grocery store. One "customer" was yelled
at by a young supply clerk when she requested an amount of food
that seemed excessive to the clerk. Later in the movie, the same
clerk is shown trying to sneak an armload of canned goods back home.
Not the grand theft of major scandal, but the petty theft of day-to-day
operations of the state.

His private
guard was shown as brutal. He had ne’er do well lackeys. In once
scene, they are shown destroying a green house. Since the movie
had earlier made pains to show that official stocks of food are
running low, this destruction seemed egregious. It was almost gut
wrenching to watch the police destroy the food supply.

There are other
examples of how the state works in the movie, but I don't want to
spoil it all for you. I want you to go see this movie or buy it
when it gets to the store. We need to make sure that movie studios
know there is demand for this kind of movie. Older viewers might
not find much in the way of art here, but it is good entertainment
with an all-too-rare libertarian view of things. Its true value
could be as a springboard to talk to the youngsters in your life
about the nature of power and force.

Conclusion

The movie hit
some pretty libertarian themes and spoke perhaps a bit too much
truth about the nature of the state, which could explain why there
wasn't much marketing. Otherwise I can't figure out why the studio
buried this gem. My wife, not a libertarian by any stretch, thought
it was strongly anti-communist. In any case, it will provide young
viewers with a different view of state power. This movie will be
more palatable than a thick philosophy book and provide an excellent
starting point for discussions with the children in your life.

November
1, 2008

Peter
Sipes [send him mail]
is a teacher of Latin to home-school students, editor at a small
textbook company, husband and father.

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