City of Ember


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 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.


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