City of Ember: Worth Watching

I saw City of Ember tonight and really enjoyed it. It’s not the most fantastic film I’ve seen recently, but it’s got a good, solid adventure story, some really engaging characters and gorgeous visual design. It also has a few excellent things I’m not used to seeing in sci-fantasy films generally, or in films targeted at children:

1. Equal hero time shared between a male and a female lead. Doon Harrow and Lina Mayfleet are co-protagonists, and they each discover necessary information and do heroic things throughout the course of the film. Woo!

2. No romance between the male and female lead. In many movies, if there’s a boy and a girl of a similar age and they’re older than, like, six, they get together by the end of the film. It’s a little hard to tell for sure – particularly because Harry Treadaway, who plays Doon, is ten years older than Saorise Ronan, who plays Lina – but it seems that Lina and Doon are meant to be pretty close in age. And yet, no superfluous romance. I know! I was pretty surprised too.

3. Multiple female characters. Who talk to each other. I think there are almost as many supporting female characters in City of Ember as there are male characters, and I counted only two points – in a film full of conversation – where two female characters talked to each other about a male character. At one point, Lina asks an old friend of her father’s about him. Another time, a friend of Lina’s tells her about her new boyfriend. That’s it! All the other talk between women and girls was about the same sorts of things that men and boys talked about. Amazing.

4. This (post-apocalyptic) future has people of color. The bulk of the cast is white, but there are people of color living in Ember, and one of the important supporting characters is a black woman. Well, it’s a start.

City of Ember hasn’t done well at the box office, but I know I’ll be buying a copy when it comes out on DVD. This is the kind of film I’ll be happy to share with the kids I know.


  1. says

    I seriously need to see this movie. I’ve seen in panned in most places, even by people who love the books, but I’m pretty psyched after reading this. (And I looooooooove the books.)

  2. says

    I’m glad to hear that this movie’s good; my husband and I were talking about seeing it on Sunday, but never got the chance. Now, I think we’ll have to find the time.

  3. says

    Rebecca – The criticisms I’ve seen focused on the slow pace of the plot, and it’s definitely not an Action! Adventure! movie. But as a diehard sci-fi fan with a particular love of generation ship speculative fiction, the quieter pace of events really worked for me.

    • Maria says

      I was a little annoyed that they cut down Clary’s part from the book. Like, she had noticed that the greenhouse plants were being infected with a new bug and she had asked the guy at the beginning to explore the outer edges of the city, because she knew that the monocrop system the city had was a recipe for disaster… from her own observations, not from the Founders. And the grandma’s friend who took in Lina and Poppy was actually pretty rad, and, I think, was the one who found the rock with the message of hope on it, which made sense because she was a community leader. And that Poppy was not only OMG CUTE but also a representation of Lina’s continued growing in moral complexities — with the friend who’s got the purloined cans Lina started thinking about whether you should share as much as you can even if you can’t save everyone. She ends up thinking that you have a moral obligation to save/share with as many as you can. In this case, the only person from Ember she can bring with her outside the city is Poppy: she can’t bring Lizzie (the friend), the gma’s friend wouldn’t listen, Clary has her own shit going on, etc. She made the best moral choice she could… so it wasn’t, in the book, about being a couple, but more about Lina learning to rely on her own sense of right/wrong.

      I overall enjoyed the movie, just was a bit :( to see these parts not there…

      I also am excited to pick up the sequel, because not everyone in the world went into the whole: only First Worlders/rich people… so there are still people on Earth outside of Ember who’ve just coped with the shifts in the environment. Like, in The Prophet of Yonwood, you learn that the US is anticipating a terrorist attack from the “Phalanx Nations” and thats why they made a bunker the size of a small city.

  4. KLee says

    I didn’t even know this movie had opened. I haven’t seen any ads for it on the SciFi channel or during the prime-time shows I watch. So I have to wonder if this has impacted the box office.

    We only have one movie theater in town, I hope that it sticks around long enough for me to see it because what you said, coupled with the cool trailer, I think I would really like it.

    The trailer I saw made me think of an old HM Hoover novel, “This Time of Darkness” which focuses on the girl hero rather than the boy as they try to escape an underground society to the outdoors (considered to be a myth but the boy says he came from there).

  5. says

    KLee – I wondered about that myself. I got really excited when I saw previews for City of Ember several months ago, but I hadn’t realized it was in theaters until I checked the paper to see what was playing locally right before we went to see it. It seems like marketing dropped the ball.

    I haven’t read This Time of Darkness, but it sounds interesting. Would you recommend it?

  6. Scarlett says

    At one point, Lina asks an old friend of her father’s about him.

    I dont’t think that even counts. When it’s obvious the female in question has no romantic interest in the male in question I think it negates the ‘talking about men’ thing. (Scarlett would do a tongue-in-cheek face if she could find the key.)

  7. says

    Scarlett – that’s part of why I mentioned it, actually. Even when the female characters are talking about men, it’s not the usual way around in this film.

  8. KLee says


    I agree, it certainly seems as if marketing really dropped the ball. I have to wonder whether the ad budget was really small or was put primarily towards ad time on Nickelodeon and Saturday mornings.

    If you like reading Juv books, then I would definitely recommend Hoover’s This Time of Darkness… that is if you can find it at your local library system. The book does show it’s age a bit but Hoover’s novels are classic children’s sci-fi and most of the author’s books, if memory serves, feature strong female protagonists. I would also recommend Hoover’s Children of Morrow, which has a not as well done IMO sequel called Treasures of Morrow. All 3 stories are set in rather dystopian futures but ultimately end on a good note.

    Although I had to sell most of my collection, I used to collect my favorite juv/ya books, mostly SF-F or future/apocalyptic adventures, that featured strong female characters. I’ve fallen out of the loop on my reading list so I haven’t even looked at the “City of Ember” novel.

  9. KLee says


    really? I would love to compare titles/authors with you some time.

    I would also rec Nelson’s The Girl Who Owned a City (older YA). It starts a bit with a similar premise to the classic Trek episode “Miri,” in that all the adults are killed by a plague leaving a world of children. One girl starts to organize her street & it grows from there.

    Less likely to be found anywhere but worth the search is Wilanne Schneider Belden’s ‘Mind’ series.

  10. Yo-so-no-name says

    I don’t think they should of used two actors of THAT age difference, because what if in the 4th book the writer decides to hook them up? would a say 20 year old want to snog a 13 year old? I think not! it just wouldn’t be right. but the film is fantastic and I think the lack of romance may be a good thing.
    But hey! I love romance between characters my OWN age, hate adult romances for some reason, doesn’t seem real enough to me, I think there should be some major Lina/Doon romance action in the 4th book or following books! wo0t! The writer (names left me) should have what HP books had in the finale book, 17 years in the future thing but they don’t live that long in ember so maybe like 5 year when like you see Lina and Doon getting married maybe? oh well see what that fantastic writer comes up with! (someone please tell me her/his name!) thanks.

  11. says

    I’m really late on this discussion, but I definitely felt some of what was being discussed in here. I did a quick review of it on my Livejournal here

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