Director: Gil Kenan, 2008.
City of Ember is a fantasy film aimed at kids, based on the book by Jeanne Duprau. Unlike other kids' movies taken from novels, such as the Harry Potter series, this is slow and wooden, and barely engaging. Kenan previously directed the animated Monster House and this is his first live-action film. Despite some good actors, he wastes their talent. Bill Murray appears to be going through the motions as corrupt Mayor Cole, and Tim Robbins has little to do as Loris Harrow, father of one of the protagonists Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway). Even the performance of Saoirse Ronan, nominated for an Oscar in her role in Atonement, cannot hold this film together.
The movie opens with a voice-over from Loris, explaining the situation:
On the day the world ended, the fate of mankind was carried in a small metal box. In a secret location, architects, scientists and engineers met and concluded that there was only one hope for our future: to build an underground city designed to keep its citizens protected for generations to come.It sounds like The Matrix, where the world above ground had ended in a cataclysm. But City of Ember is more like one of the Matrix sequels: dull.
The metal box left by the Builders contains instructions to the city dwellers, and was intended to be passed down from mayor to mayor, but somewhere along the way the box got lost. Now it is 200 years after Ember was built and populated, and the people know nothing of the world outside their boundaries. The massive generator that powers Ember is deteriorating and with it goes life. Further, the supplies that kept the people fed have dwindled and are almost gone. Time is running out for these citizens of this underground city of light.
When we meet the two chief protagonists it is the day of assignment, when the school graduates are given a vocation. The ceremony is overseen by a bored mayor. Like the sorting hat in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, this decision will decide their destiny. Where the choice in Harry Potter was made by a wise wizarding hat, here it is a matter of luck as the young adults reach into a bag to pull out the paper slip that will impact their whole life. Doon wants to be an electrician who can work with the generator to fix it, but instead gets to be a messenger, a runner with a red cape. Lina (Saoirse Ronan) chooses the life of a pipe-worker. Neither are happy, and so they switch roles.
When Lina discovers the metal box and the message it contains, it seems to be a clear sign. With no one else focusing on the imminent dangers of the dying generator, Doon and Lina take destiny into their own hands and look for a way out of Ember.
The film has the mandatory cgi creatures needed in a fantasy like this: a mutated mole and a massive moth. But the stolid plot never explains these, and barely uses them except for a couple of moments of manufactured tension. Yet despite the slowness of the film and the mediocre nature of the adventure, there is much to interact with biblically. In fact, the film seems full of Christian motifs, whether intentional or unintentional.
The assignment of vocation is akin to the assignment of spiritual gifts to those who choose to follow Jesus. When we commit our lives to Christ, the Holy Spirit blesses us with a spiritual gift to use in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:11). In Ember, Loris tells Doon, "What you get is what you get, what you do with what you get, that's more the point." Likewise, we do not have a say in the gift or gifts we are given. Some in the church desire the more visible gifts, as those in the Corinthian church wanted the gifts of tongues, healing, miracles, etc (1 Cor. 12:28-31). But unlike Doon and Lina, we cannot swap our gifts with another believer. We get what we get. What we do with these gifts is the point. Will we use them faithfully to bless and benefit the church? Or will we hold back, jealously wishing for something else, squandering what we do have, and grieving the Spirit (Eph. 4:30)?
Early in the film, the Mayor declares that Ember is the city of light in a world of darkness. Jesus said something similar to describe Christians. As Jesus is the light of the world (Jn. 9:5), so his followers are lights to the world, reflecting Jesus to those in darkness (Matt. 6:14-16). We in the church comprise a city of light in this dark world. As we allow Jesus to shine forth through us those around us can see the truth.
But Ember's light started to sputter and flicker and experience blackouts. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the impact of sin in the life of the believer. As we allow the temptations of the devil, the world and the flesh to draw us into sin, so our lights sputter and flicker. We can remain bright lights only as we stay connected to Jesus. Sin breaks that fellowship (1 Jn. 1:6) and causes our witness to the world to be tainted and darkened. The generator is not broken, but our connection to that power source, God, is interrupted. Unlike Ember, we can fix this by repentance and confession followed by receiving God's forgiveness (1 Jn. 1:9).
The Mayor himself can be compared to some biblical leaders. In a position of power and authority, Mayor Cole has put his own needs and desires above his people. He is no longer serving them, he is looking out for number one. The power accorded his office has corrupted him so that he seeks self-preservation. Even the the two kids on their mission to save Ember are perceived as a threat. The Pharisees were like that when Jesus came the first time. He preached a gospel message that was good news to the poor and marginalized (Lk. 4:18-19) but bad news to those in authority, since this authority was threatened. Jesus' light shone too brightly for these leaders and to retain their power they had to commit the worst sin in history: the murder of Messiah. They were not serving the Jews, they were serving themselves.
Perhaps the clearest reference to God in City of Ember is in the "Builders." The Builders created this underground world and then left the people. No one has seen the builders, but they all believe in the builders. But this belief has turned cynical, since the builders have remained silent even while the city is collapsing. When Lina finds the instructions in the metal box she shows Doon, and he in turn tells his dad, "The Builders left instructions." Having been hurt before in this kind of belief, Loris bitterly retorts, "The Builders abandoned us." Doon responds, "No, they didn't. They didn't, Dad. I have proof." Proof is what Loris wants: "Show me." And he shows him the secret instructions, the letter of escape, or salvation, from the Builders. This is akin to the Bible, the letter containing the gospel message of salvation or escape from the kingdom of darkness for humanity (Col. 1:13), if we will only listen.
Today, many have cynically given up on God. Many preach that he is dead, a belief that swept the 20th century, or he has abandoned us to ourselves. Yet, this present attitude is often accompanied by a staunch resistance to any proof or evidence of the presence of God. All such evidence is "explained" away by an atheistic approach that wants nothing to do with a creator God. But Loris shows us the attitude we need: openness. We can never prove that God, a spirit being (Jn. 4:24), exists. But there is evidence that demands a verdict. And that evidence is compelling and of more than one kind. Looking into the Scriptures, looking at the overwhelming "coincidences" that must align to make life possible, looking at the changes of character of people throughout 2000 years of Christian history, and looking at personal experience of a God who wants to make himself known personally to you and me, this evidence demands of each one of us a personal verdict. And that verdict will define who you are in this life and the one to come.
Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs