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Bright lights
‘City of Ember' stands out in a disappointing fall film season

City of Ember

(PG)

3 stars out of 4

If you feel so inclined, it's easy to interpret EVERY movie - new or old - as an allegory on the great decline of western civilization as we know it. "City of Ember" is many things; a good movie, an allegory on anything you imagine it to be and a cheery (if there is such a thing) view of the apocalypse. The one thing it isn't - and what it desperately wants to be - is a child-friendly action-fantasy.

Far more Terry Gilliam sarcastic and dismal than Harry Potter or Disney optimistic, "City of Ember" has the misfortune of arriving at a most inopportune time. It ends well, but spends most of its time reminding us of the metaphoric real-life walls closing in on us. If you want diversionary uplift, look elsewhere - you won't find it here.

At an unspecified point in time, wiser elders on the Earth's surface conclude it's better to move below ground and attempt to resurface when an impending, unspecified catastrophe has passed. A box containing software and a cryptic note is turned over from one surviving Mayor of Ember to the next with the idea that once the threat above is gone, the subterranean dwellers can emerge and start over.

Everyone living in Ember has never seen sunlight, exists within a totalerian regime and depends solely on the continued performance of a threadworm electronic generator for power. This generator is effectively the sun, moon, wind and rain to people lacking anything resembling a clue and when it starts showing signs of fray, everyone (rightfully) hits the panic button.

The only resident of Ember not worried about it is the mayor (Bill Murray), who is also the city's only overweight citizen. The movie's central prop - a metal box time capsule containing software and escape instructions - is supposed to be in the mayor's possession, but some 50 years earlier was lost and ended up in the hands of the Mayfleet family.

Early on, Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan, "Atonement") finds the box but has little idea of what to do with it. Together with fellow rebel Doon (Harry Treadaway), Lina slowly unravels the puzzle, much to the chagrin of the mayor and his chief goon (Toby Jones).

Like director Gil Kenan's previous effort ("Monster House"), much of the dark and intense material in "City of Ember" will scare the daylights out of a fair amount of pre-teens. The story might also be a bit too intricate and heady for some of them to navigate or even enjoy.

Though it's a well-made picture with some interesting twists, it's hardly original. It is nearly identical to "Logan's Run" and Gilliam's "12 Monkeys" - a futurist fantasy where people live below the Earth's surface waiting for the fallout of nuclear winter to pass. You'll get to see another version of this same scenario later this year in "The Road," starring Viggo Mortensen.

Original or not, in this thus far remarkably disappointing fall season, "City of Ember" is one of the rare standouts and should be seen. Whether it can find an audience is another question. (Fox)