Since when did post-apocalyptic themes become family fare? While “WALL-E” was charming, this adaptation of Jeanne DuPrau’s young adult novel is downright grim.
Built as a self-contained refuge, the subterranean City of Ember was designed to sustain mankind for 200 years after the Earth’s surface became uninhabitable. In the interim, however, instructions for ending the exile have been lost — and the massive, aging generator is failing.
Two intelligent, resourceful teenagers, Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadway), are acutely aware of their metropolis’ impending doom as power outages become more frequent and gigantic bugs proliferate in the ever-increasing darkness. Darting about as a red-caped Messenger, Lina discovers a mysterious metal box with a cryptic code that once belonged to her great-great-grandfather, a former Mayor of Ember. But when she goes to the current Mayor (Bill Murray), she realizes he’s corrupt to his corpulent core. So she works with her friend, the pipe-worker Doon, to devise a way to break into the ailing generator and unleash the Splash Mountain-like escape pods.
Adapted by Caroline Thompson (“Edward Scissorhands”) and directed by Gil Kenan (“Monster House”), it’s a muddled, blandly uneven, depressing dystopian fantasy with a bleak, pervasively claustrophobic atmosphere. Most intriguing are the inventive sound and visual effects, including many Rube Goldberg-like contraptions reminiscent of German Expressionism and Machine Age design, despite DuPrau’s essentially anti-technology theme. Among the least effective ideas is a hideous, red-tentacled mole, which is far too frightening for tiny tots.
Tim Robbins, Martin Landau, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Mackenzie Crook, and Mary Kay Place lend supportive maturity, while Amy and Catherine Quinn are cute as Lina’s mute little sister Poppy. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “City of Ember” is a flickering, faltering 4. Fade out.