GOD ONLINE: Exploring media spirituality

Web sites, TV, films, books and the search for meaning.

DVD Review: ‘City of Ember’

with 5 comments

The underrated City of Ember deserved more attention during its brief theatrical run last year. Catch it on DVD and marvel how closely it tracks the apocalyptic beliefs of several religions.

The city is a Dickensian slum deep underground, an immense bunker lit by bulbs on the cavern ceiling and powered by a huge generator. It’s a result of desperate planning two centuries ago by its founders, who saw the world about to end. (The movie wisely doesn’t say how. It’s not the point anyway.)

Emberites live a meager life, carrying on amid food shortages and increasing terrifying blackouts. But the corrupt mayor (Bill Murray) does nothing about the crises, except fend for himself.

He also enforces a law against anyone trying to escape the city, warning of doom and darkness on the surface. But two teens, Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan), don’t wait placidly for the end: They determine to fix the generator, or find a way out.

As luck or fate would have it, their answer comes with a click under Lina’s bed. The metal box she inherited from an ancestor — a former mayor — has suddenly opened, to display a cryptic message. They eventually realize it’s a set of instructions from the founders for leaving Ember.

The current mayor naturally tries to stop them from escaping, first with lies, then with force. The kids then strike out on their own and endure a harrowing voyage, not knowing what they’ll find.

It’s a remarkable set of elements for a children’s movie. Self-determination. Staying true to oneself. Following ancient wisdom. And the kids’ final ascent to the surface is about as spiritual as it gets: climbing a long flight of stairs, candle in hand, as reverently as any pilgrim approaching a holy site.

Doon and Lina are, in fact, walking well-traveled steps of several religions. Christianity, Judaism and Islam teach that God will step in one day and set everything right — through the Messiah, or Mahdi, or the Hidden Imam. Buddhists and Hindus have their own versions, called Maitreya or Vishnu, although they must come repeatedly whenever things get too bad.

And the faiths have all left instructions in various records, often as overlooked in modern life as a box under a bed. Some Christians even like to say BIBLE stands for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”

Have we outgrown such superstitions, as some might call them? Look at the peace and environmental and New Age movements. Read the warnings of food justice movements like Hazon, which runs the Jew & the Carrot blog. They all call for radical change in our lives, or else.

But can we save ourselves? Especially when we, or our ancestors, are the ones who got in peril? Maybe we need outside help. Maybe we need a vision of another world. This film may not provide answers, as scriptures can, but it could start the quest. Or light an Ember.


Written by Jim Davis

February 17, 2009 at 4:42 am

5 Responses

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  1. I’ll make a point to pick up a copy.


    Christian H

    February 17, 2009 at 7:21 pm

  2. Write back after you’ve seen it. I’ll be interested in your opinions.


    James Davis

    February 20, 2009 at 4:37 am

  3. I just watched it.

    I’ll write a review of it when I’m less exhausted.


    Christian H

    March 21, 2009 at 2:18 am

    • Whoops, I never checked back until now. Thanks for your review on City of Ember. I thought her cape looked cool, too. I was a little squicked by Bill Murray’s paunch, though.



      May 24, 2009 at 7:30 pm

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