As an unspecified global catastrophe looms, an underground city, Ember, is constructed to shelter a large group of survivors. A small metal box intended for a future generation of Emberites is timed to open after 200 years. This box is entrusted to the Mayor of the City of Ember, and each mayor, in turn, passes the box on to his or her successor. Over time, however, the significance of the box is forgotten, and the succession is broken when the seventh mayor dies suddenly before revealing its importance. The box opens at the allotted time, but this goes unnoticed. Several decades later, Ember's generator has begun to fail, while food and light bulbs are in dangerously short supply.
At a rite of passage for all graduating students of Ember City School, Mayor Cole (Bill Murray) stands before the students as they choose their adult occupations via lottery. Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway), the son of inventor Loris Harrow (Tim Robbins), is assigned "Messenger", while his classmate Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) is assigned "Pipeworks Laborer" and apprenticed to elderly technician Sul (Martin Landau). Shortly afterwards, the two secretly exchange assignments. At home, Lina (a descendant of the seventh mayor) finds the opened box and enlists Doon's help to decipher its contents. Gradually, they learn that it contains a set of instructions and directions for an exit from the city. Later, they also discover that Mayor Cole has been hoarding canned food in a secret vault for his own benefit while the people go hungry. After Lina attempts to report this, the mayor captures her and tries to steal the metal box, but she escapes during a city-wide blackout. Now fugitives from the mayor's police, Lina and Doon, accompanied by Lina's little sister, Poppy, use the instructions and assistance from Sul to flee the city via a subterranean river. Meanwhile, the Mayor turns against his accomplice, Looper, and locks himself in his vault, only to be devoured by a gigantic star-nosed mole. Lina, Doon, and Poppy eventually reach the Earth's surface, where they witness a sunrise for the first time in their lives. The movie ends as they tie a message to a rock and drop it from far above it into the city − where it is found by Loris.Saoirse Ronan as Lina Mayfleet, descendant of the 7th Mayor of Ember.Harry Treadaway as Doon HarrowBill Murray as Mayor Cole, the current Mayor of the City of Ember and the main antagonist.Toby Jones as Barton Snode, the assistant to Mayor Cole.Martin Landau as Sul, a technician in the Pipeworks and mentor to Doon.Tim Robbins as Loris "Barrow" Harrow, Doon's father .Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Clary Lane, Greenhouse Keeper.Liz Smith as Granny MayfleetAmy Quinn and Catherine Quinn as Poppy Mayfleet, younger sister of Lina.Mary Kay Place as Mrs. MurdoMackenzie Crook as Looper, keeper of the store rooms.Lucinda Dryzek as Lizzie Bisco, Lina's best friend.Matt Jessup as Joss, a classmate of Lina and Doon.Simon Kunz as Captain Fleery, Lina's boss.Ian McElhinney as a Builder
In October 2004, Playtone partners Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman paid in the mid-six figures to purchase the film rights to Jeanne DuPrau's 2003 novel The City of Ember. They entered negotiations with Caroline Thompson to adapt the novel and Gil Kenan to direct the film. The deal includes an option on the sequel novel The People of Sparks. Filming was scheduled to begin in early summer of 2007 and to wrap up in October of the same year, a 16-week shooting process. A former paint hall in the shipyard of Harland and Wolff in Belfast's Titanic Quarter was converted into the post-apocalyptic city.
Few animals are shown; but the two nonhuman living creatures onscreen are related thematically to darkness and light: a giant moth (which seeks light) and a giant mole (subterranean and blind).
Walden Media hired Lucas Cruikshank to promote the movie in his internet series "Fred". The video was released Saturday, October 4, 2008 with an edited version of clips from the film, including "Fred's" face superimposed on the faces of characters from the trailer.
At the AMC premiere of the film, its stars chatted about their feeling that the film was thematically appropriate for the times. As Mike Flaherty wrote:
At the after-party at meatpacking district eatery Vento, the pic's baddie, Bill Murray, said, "You can't help but feel that this film is speaking to you right now, when you really feel a little bit lost, a little abandoned." Added pic's Tim Robbins, who was joined by cast mates Martin Landau and Saoirse Ronan at the premiere: "I just loved the script. It had such a good, optimistic spirit about it. It's fun to play against this bleak, dark world."
The film received mixed reviews from critics. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 53% based on 124 reviews, with the site's consensus stating: "City of Ember is visually arresting, and boasts a superb cast, but is sadly lacking in both action and adventure." Metacritic gave the film a 58/100 rating indicating "mixed or average reviews", based on reviews from 27 critics. Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times that the "talents of Saoirse Ronan, the brilliant young actress from Atonement", were "wasted in the science-fiction juvenilia of City of Ember", though he added: "Most of the time, however, it's a whiz-bang kid's film with neat gadgets and sound effects and an extended chase and escape sequence through underground rivers and tunnels. At only 95 minutes, the movie feels as though it had been shredded in the editing room... The best things about this are scenes of ominous grinding machinery of the kind found in railway yards, as well as several zany gadgets worthy of Rube Goldberg. The most witty is a primitive telephone-answering machine that resembles the do-it-yourself hi-fi kits assembled by audiophiles in the early days of stereo... Tim Robbins is also on hand as Doon's earnest, secretly rebellious father, who spends his days tinkering with exotic inventions... But not to worry: the boundless resourcefulness of two curious, clean-cut adolescents full of gee-whiz enthusiasm may lead humanity back into the fresh air and sunlight." Justin Chang of Variety had similarly mixed feelings: "A fabulously designed underground metropolis proves more involving than the teenagers running through its streets in City of Ember, a good-looking but no more than serviceable adaptation of Jeanne Duprau's 2003 novel. Director Gil Kenan's disappointing live-action follow-up to his enjoyable toon debut, Monster House, shows promising flickers of visual invention throughout, but the dramatic sparks fail to ignite in this simpleminded exercise in juvenile dystopia." Chang also observed that the characters represent "English-speaking, predominantly Caucasian humanity." Irv Slifkin for Video Business wrote, "this lavishly designed adventure saga from director Gil Kenan... plays like Terry Gilliam's Brazil — for beginners". He praised the "secret escape plan hidden by Ember's founders" and "impressive technical work," concluding that there were "drama and sometimes lethargic pacing, but there's enough here for middle- and high-school kids to think about and marvel over." Cinema Blend's Editor in Chief, Katey Rich gave the film 2.5 of 5 stars and said, "City of Ember belongs to one of the best and most enduring genres of children's films, in which smart kids stand up against the ignorant and aloof adult world and have a big adventure in the process. It also throws in a fantastical city, replete with whiz-bang inventions and secret societies. It's a mystery, then, that all the happy elements only add up to a big mush, a dull adventure and a contrived fantasy. Saiorsie [sic] Ronan is a fantastic heroine, but the story and the rest of the cast can't keep up with her lively pace." She added that "director Gil Kenan seems hellbent on just driving the narrative forward. The movie clocks in at an acceptably short time for a kid's movie, but so much gets lost or glossed over along the way. Ember itself is fascinating, an intricately detailed set that, like Diagon Alley or the Star Wars cantina, you'd like to take a few hours to wander around in. But so many questions about the city are left unanswered... You get the feeling that Jeanne Duprau's book got into this stuff, while the movie never seems to have the time." TV Guide was more forgiving with 3.5 out of 4 stars, pointing out, "A fun and moving family film with a subtly dark feel rarely seen in kids' movies since the '80s, City of Ember succeeds despite its shortcomings, not only because of its fun and inspiring story, but because most of its flaws are things kids won't notice anyway... [T]he story spins into a classic fable; the ignorance that seemed so blissful shows it's just one half of a coin, where the other side holds apathy and hopelessness. The moral might well be lost on kids, but for adults, it's compelling -- all the more so because we like the good people of this dying city." This reviewer praised the "series of exciting adventures" and argued that "Lina and Doon's vigilant sense of hope is, in the end, incredibly inspiring and extremely pertinent... It might be a staple theme in family films, but City of Ember is a useful reminder about the power of the human spirit to triumph where our own hopelessly broken systems have failed. It's a message that the filmmakers didn't take for granted -- and that hopefully viewers won't either."
On its opening weekend, the film opened poorly at #11 at the US box office with $3,129,473. As of February 20, 2010, the film has grossed $17,929,684 worldwide, well below its $55 million budget.
Saoirse Ronan was nominated for a 2009 Irish Film and Television Award as "Best Actress in a Lead Role in a Film", and art director Jon Billington and production designer Martin Laing were nominated for Satellite Awards in 2008 for their design of the film, as was Ruth Myers for her costume design.
The DVD was released on January 20, 2009 in a DVD-18 format with the widescreen version of the film on one side, and the full screen version on the other.
It was released in 2009 on Blu-ray Disc in the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, and France, all coded for Region B playback only, although the German release will also play on Region A players. No United States Blu-ray release has been announced, but a Region A Blu-ray was released in Hong Kong in 2010.