What Went Wrong: City of Ember
By Shalimar Sahota
June 27, 2013

Why am I not golfing in Japan right now? WHY???

This will go into a few spoilers, so if you haven’t seen City of Ember then you might be better off reading the book.

Following 2001’s double whammy of Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and New Line Cinema’s The Lord the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, numerous studios made a mad rush buying the rights to an assortment of fantasy novels to adapt into big screen blockbusters. They made sure to pick those that were in a series, since everyone wanted their own fantasy franchise. A few actually saw sequels, such as Twilight, The Chronicles of Narnia and Percy Jackson & the Olympians. However, many were left with just the one - Eragon, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Golden Compass, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant and City of Ember.

The book The City of Ember was first published in 2003 and is the first in a series of four books by Jeanne Duprau. Tom Hanks’ production company Playtone brought the rights to the book in November 2004 and were looking at Caroline Thompson to adapt it for the screen, with Gil Kenan to make his directorial debut. Kenan described it as “exactly the kind of movie that I wanted to make,” and revealed how he worked with Thompson to turn a wordy-based mystery and puzzle solving novel into a more visually epic film. Playtone also managed to get Walden Media to help co-finance the film, with 20th Century Fox to distribute. Everything seemed to be working out, but then Kenan got an offer from Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg to direct Monster House.

Pre-production on City of Ember continued, with production designer Martin Laing creating a small city inside a warehouse in Northern Ireland. Shooting for the film began in July 2007 and continued over a four month period.

Ember itself is an underground city, a refuge for humanity that’s suffering occasional blackouts. The inhabitants don’t seem to realize that the generator has outlived its 200 year lifespan and is on its last legs. The Mayor (Bill Murray) is lost when it comes to what to do and has little interest in fixing problems. Instead, the only ones that seem to be concerned with doing anything are two children – Lina (Saoirse Ronan), who works in the city as a messenger, and Doon (Harry Treadaway), who is responsible for looking after the pipes under the city. When Lina comes across a metal case with some important looking documents, she enlists the help of Doon to help put the clues together, hoping that they just might hold the key to saving the city.

20th Century Fox had previously collaborated with Walden Media on Because of Winn-Dixie, which was released in February 2005. Following this film, they announced and created Fox-Walden in August 2006, which would specialize in producing family films. Over the next two years they released The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium and Nim’s Island. A week before City of Ember was released, it was reported that Fox-Walden would be absorbed by Fox as a part of their marketing unit, reasoning that that there just weren’t enough films to warrant having a separate marketing body. They made sure to avoid mentioning how the films released under the Fox-Walden brand had performed below expectations.

City of Ember had a production budget of $55 million, most of which was spent on creating the humungous city itself. It was one of four new releases that opened wide on October 10, 2008, along with Body of Lies, Quarantine and The Express. With an opening weekend take of $3.1 million, City of Ember didn’t even make it inside the top ten, charting at #11. The following weekend saw it down to #15 with $1.7 million. It finished up at the US box office with $7.87 million. The lack of interest wasn’t just relegated to the US. Overseas its grosses amounted to $10.05 million. The film was released straight to DVD in 2009 in Brazil, Finland, Sweden, Germany and Japan. Its worldwide box office amounted to just $17.9 million. Oh, dear.

Reviews were mixed. In particular, Charlie Jane Anders of i09 rightly summed it up as “a post-apocalyptic Nancy Drew story.” It’s really down to you on whether that sounds like a good or bad thing. Many praised the visual look, with those that liked the film calling it imaginative, fun, mature and thought provoking. Negative reviews called it boring, slow and low on imagination, with a few citing the lack of explanation leading to unanswered questions. One reviewer noted that those aged 15 and over might wish to look elsewhere, while another felt that the film wasn’t really suitable for young children. With this in mind, who exactly was this film aimed at? Families? Young adults? Preteens? Wannabe Nancy Drews with a fascination for end-of-the-world scenarios? It was either too dark for children, too boring for teenagers or too predictable for adults.

The trailer makes it look exciting, with the film’s young stars in a mysterious underground city on an adventure. But with the overall dark look of the film, it’s unlikely to have appealed to young children. There is nothing bright, cheery, colourful or cuddly about City of Ember, meaning that it’s hardly going to be the first choice when parents want to take their kids to see a children’s film. Especially when Disney’s Beverly Hills Chihuahua is playing next door; it’s easier to just go for the safe, easy-on-the-brain option and have them watch something with talking animals instead. Beverly Hills Chihuahua retained its position at the top spot for a second week the same weekend that City of Ember opened.

What many reviewers picked up on is the film’s lack of unanswered questions. We’re never really told why the inhabitants of Ember have had to move underground. In the book it is revealed that it is because of war, but this is barely even hinted at in the film. For some reason bugs are huge in size (Doon comes across a giant moth), but we don’t know what’s caused this growth, unless this is supposed to imply some sort of radiation outbreak, which might explain why the inhabitants of Ember are underground in the first place. How can tinned food that has been stocked up in the city last for 200 years? How can anyone just forget about an important metal case, especially when Lina notices that it’s pictured in portraits with previous Mayors of Ember. Crucially, why would anyone think it’s a good idea to make humanity’s survival so difficult that you’d lock it away in a box for 200 years? Why not put it in a book in a library where everyone can see it and remember it? Also, why present survival as a series of dangerous tasks? Escaping the city involves having Doon and Lina take a frightening boat ride (think the log flume from hell) where they could potentially lose their lives. Maybe something got lost in translation from book to screen?

Those that saw the film noted how Fox hardly marketed it. TV spots were barely played; a Vote Cole for Mayor commercial was pretty clever, but was most probably lost on those that saw it. With the downsizing of Fox Walden going on at the time (which resulted in 12 people losing their jobs), it could be argued that the timing of this resulted in City of Ember becoming a victim of the sudden cut back, hence the lack of marketing.

The other issue is the book itself, which is just not "that" well known. Since it was published, The City of Ember has sold over 1.7 million copies, though that figure was obviously a touch smaller when the film was released in 2008 (the book sold close to 350,000 copies that year). A decent number, but it’s a long way off from the highs of Harry Potter and not even close to the 6 million+ that Eragon has sold in North America alone.

City of Ember dared to be a little bit different. Unorthodox and weird, one can’t help but feel a certain sense of joy that it did slip through the studio system. But it does not stand as a great film. Before its release I viewed the trailer and was attracted by the visual look, but little else. I didn’t watch it till it was broadcast on TV. The concept is open to many plot holes and even at 90 minutes it feels slow. It doesn’t really pick up till the final third, with Lina and Doon suddenly becoming wanted and chased by the Mayor’s henchmen. The conclusion is somewhat anti-climatic. However, there are worse films out there and City of Ember didn’t deserve the kind of apathy that is often reserved for almost anything with M. Night Shyamalan’s name attached to it. Few were aware of the book and the lack of promotion resulted in even fewer that were aware of the film. We will not be seeing a sequel.