City of Ember (2008)

Never judge a book by its movie. City of Ember (the movie) is only okay, but City of Ember (the book) is fantastic.

Deep underground, the people of Ember have never seen the sun and don’t even know it exists. The builders of their city planned for them to emerge, but that plan was lost and forgotten, and now Ember is running out of supplies, and its generator, without which there is no light, is breaking down. Will the builders return to save the people of Ember, as some believe? Will the mayor come up with a plan for his people? Or will it be up to Lina and Doon to rediscover the lost exit to the surface?

The premise is great. However, the movie lacks the focus of the book because some added elements don’t quite fit, some of the positive thematic messages are missing, and some of the action shots were created with awkward CGI. Also, personally, I’m not fond of Bill Murray.

I think The City of Ember would be great as a television series, because a TV show could spend a lot more time developing the characters and exploring the unique underground world.

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See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

My beat sheet plot summary for The City of Ember

Scientists (the Builders) prepare a Box of instructions to be given to the first mayor of Ember, an underground city. The Box, which will open after 200 years, is passed down faithfully from mayor to mayor. (Watch closely and you can see the mayors’ hands age as they pass the Box along.) When the seventh mayor dies suddenly, however, the Box is lost and forgotten. It clicks open in a closet.

Opening Image
Yellow lights hang over the roofs of Ember. One breaks and falls.

Set up
On graduation day, the day all twelve-year-olds will each receive a random job, Doon Harrow counts the seconds of a blackout. He vows that he will not just sit around while Ember collapses; he will fix the failing generator, whatever it takes. The same day, Lina Mayfleet is literally running late for the ceremony. She arrives in time to join in a recitation of the loyalty oath, which says “Beyond Ember the darkness goes on forever in all directions: Ours is the only light in a dark world.” After everyone picks jobs from the mayor’s bag, Doon swaps his messenger job for Lina’s Pipeworks job, which he hopes will give him access to the failing generator.

When Lina goes home, we meet her religious neighbor Mrs. Murdo, her little sister Poppy, who is always putting things in her mouth, and her Granny, a forgetful old woman related to the seventh Mayor of Ember, in whose house she, Lina and Poppy still live. It’s full of yarn now.

When Doon goes home, we meet his inventor father, who gives him a thingy of unknown purpose and a dose of some rather good advice: “The main thing is, pay attention. Pay close attention to everything, everything you see. Notice what no one else notices and you’ll know what no one else knows. What you get is what you get. What you do with what you get, that’s more important, wouldn’t you say?”

Doon mends the wing of a giant moth while Lina pedals a device that plays her parents’ answering machine messages to Poppy at bedtime. One of the messages is from a man named Barrow, saying “I’m in.” After Poppy is asleep, Lina uses a short colored pencil to add a blue sky to a drawing of a city.

On Lina’s first day of work, she reports early and tells her boss she loves going fast. She can’t wait to start work as a messenger. She takes her first message to her friend Clary in the greenhouses, where the potatoes won’t grow right. While she’s there, a man comes back from the dark Unknown Regions and is arrested when he arrives by the trash heaps because it is illegal to try to leave Ember. Lina picks up an oversized beetle pincer he brought back with him.

On Doon’s first day of work, Doon’s mentor Sul gives him a helmet and tells him that the man who wore it before him drowned. He tells Doon that there are no more new pipes, so they just have to keep patching the old ones and “take things as they come”. Doon can’t get into the generator room, but he steals Sul’s Pipeworks map and finds a locked door marked 351. A trapdoor nearby leads to a nearly empty storeroom, which a dodgy-looking guy named Looper angrily throws him out of.

Lina and Doon meet in the street during another blackout, twice as long as the longest one ever, and agree that Ember is running out of time and that they have to do something. Lina suggests looking for an exit, and gives Doon the giant beetle pincer. At home, she discovers that Granny is searching for something important. Poppy is chewing on some paper instructions from the Box, which Granny recognizes as being important without knowing why.

In the aftermath of the longest-ever blackout, people are feeling panicked. Lina takes a message from Looper to the mayor: “Your ship is in.” On the way, she recognizes the Box in all the mayor portraits on the wall. The current mayor’s portrait does not include the Box, and he does not know what it is. He makes fun of Lina’s name. Returning to Looper, Lina hears him say something like “just looking out for myself” and “going black for good”.

Doon’s father claims not to be worried. He tells his son the generator has never failed yet, and in any case, what could Doon possibly do about it? Doon wonders aloud how the beetle that dropped the big pincer could be so much bigger than the ones shown in an old book.

Lina assembles the chewed instructions and finds a plastic key in the Box. She shows her friend Lizzy at the warehouse, where there are severe shortages. When she returns home, Granny is sick, and there’s no medicine. Lina finds one last chewed piece of paper before another blackout hits and Granny dies. Lina and Poppy go to live with Mrs. Murdo, who is looking forward to the annual Great Day of Singing. She reassures Lina that “There’s nothing to worry about. Help is coming…. The builders will come again to show us the way.”

Break into Two
Lina promises her dead Granny that she will figure out the purpose of the Box. She glues the pieces together and shows Doon, because one of the bits says something about the Pipeworks. Doon suggests that the printed letters look like the letters in the old book at their school, so Lina and Doon use Doon’s mystery tool to break in to make a comparison. The lettering matches! Doon, seeing the fragmented instructions, deciphers the word “exit”. Now they are partners in the mystery of the message from the Builders.

Fun and Games / B Story
Lina and Doon go to the locked room in the Pipeworks. They see a giant star-nosed mole chase someone carrying food. Then it starts chasing them. Lina escapes via the trap door to the storeroom but the mole follows and Doon has to distract it so she can escape.

Lina and Doon sit in the Pipeworks, lamenting Ember’s broken generator and dire food shortage. Lina sees the name of the drowned man on Doon’s helmet: Mayfleet. It had been worn by her father. Her father had drowned! But how? She goes to ask Clary.

Clary reveals a secret tunnel under the greenhouse and explains that Lina’s father believed in a way out of Ember, based on the idea that the river flowed from somewhere to somewhere. He dug a tunnel to search for a way out, but died when it flooded. Clary suggests showing the instructions and key from the Box to the mayor.

The mayor gives a supposedly reassuring speech in which he states the need for answers and solutions. He calls for a task force of volunteers who will launch a thorough investigation. “Today, we the people stand united against the darkness.”

Lina catches Lizzy stealing rare food and tells her it’s wrong. Lizzy says her unofficial boyfriend Looper said that since all the food is going to be gone soon anyway, they should live as well as they can now.

Lina and Doon go to the locked room in the Pipeworks, pick the lock, and find the mayor sleeping in an armchair surrounded by stolen food. No wonder he’s so fat! Horrified, they tiptoe away. Obviously the mayor is not interested in helping the people of Ember find solutions to their problems.

Bad Guys Close In
Doon hears his father’s voice on Lina’s answering machine tape and realizes his father, aka “Barrow Harrow”, had tried to leave Ember with Lina’s father. Doon confronts his father, but his father merely says he believes the Builders abandoned the people of Ember. Doon says he has proof that they didn’t.

Carrying the Box, Lina goes to tell the mayor’s assistant that she and Doon saw the mayor in a secret room of stolen food. The mayor’s assistant arrests her and takes her to the mayor himself. The mayor tries to take the Box, but during another blackout Lina steals a plastic key from him and manages to escape. The mayor’s guards go to Doon’s house, where his father manages to warn him, saying that proof should be pursued. The guards go to the greenhouse, after Mrs. Murdo tells them that’s where Lina has probably gone. Doon has gone there too. Clary conceals them both in Lina’s father’s secret tunnel, in spite of threats that she will be punished if caught helping them.

All Is Lost / Dark Night of the Soul
Lina and Doon, hunted for treason by the mayor’s guards, discuss how their fathers together secretly tried to find a way out. Lina’s father died and Doon’s gave up all hope and stopped looking for an exit. Still, there must be one, right?

Break into Three
Lina and Doon use a digging car built by Doon’s father to exit the secret greenhouse tunnel and return to the city via the trash heaps. Lina snatches Poppy from the square in the middle of the celebration of the Great Day of Singing. Lina, Doon, and Poppy go to the Pipeworks.

Noticing that the instructions match a pattern in the floor, Lina and Doon activate a mechanism that turns the lockers into boats and send them towards the river. The first boat is crushed by one of the two water wheels, indicating that they will have to follow some other instructions before they can safely use the river as an exit. Doon adds the key Lina took from the mayor to the key Lina found in the Box. Poppy helps them open the way to the emergency control room, which is up a huge ladder. They follow the instructions, but one of the waterwheels jams. Doon’s mentor Sul wakes up and figures out how to unjam it. Lina, Doon, and Poppy launch themselves in a boat onto the underground river. Bad CGI ensues.

Meanwhile, a power irregularity has made Ember’s lights start to burst. Water has started to seep into the town square, causing people to panic. The mayor sneaks off to his secret room, leaving Looper locked outside. The mayor is attacked by the giant star-nosed mole, which has been lurking inside.

A flume takes Lina, Doon, and Poppy to a cave where a path leads up and out of the cave. They see a sign saying “You are here!” and find matches and candles with pictorial instructions. They climb a long flight of stairs and emerge into a room where the first people of Ember descended into the city “for the good of all mankind.” Exiting the room, Lina is disappointed. “They were right,” she says. “There’s nothing but darkness.”

Doon wakes Lina at sunrise. The sky turns blue to match Lina’s drawing. She’s amazed, and the music is triumphant. After noticing a giant moth fly into a hole, Lina and Doon drop a message down to the city from a crack in the cave ceiling so that people will know how to follow them out of the dying city. Fate (?!) decrees that their note is found by Doon’s father. “Now the path was clear for all of us who kept the flame of ember burning so we could live again on the earth in the light.”

Final Image
Lina, Doon, and Poppy climb a sunlit hill.

Differences between City of Ember (the movie) and City of Ember (the book)

In principle, I’m glad a movie version of City of Ember exists, but the book is more detailed and yet tidier…

In the movie, Lina and Doon each have a goal: Lina wants to find an exit and Doon wants to fix the generator. Doon’s goal aligns with Lina’s after he sees the generator on fire. Lina and Doon subsequently discover that they’re following in the footsteps of their fathers, who failed to find a way out. That’s already a lot to fit in the space of a short adventure movie that also has to do a lot of world-building. You still have to add the minor subplot of Lizzie stealing food, which hooks into the major subplot of the mayor and Looper stealing food. Then add mutant animals which somehow no one has noticed until now. It’s too much.

What shape is the City of Ember? In the movie, Ember is a circle. I like the circular design and the lightning emblem. In the book, the city is basically a rectangle, I guess because that’s what fits on two facing pages of a book.

How old are the kids? The actress who played Poppy behaved like a girl younger than her size would indicate. In the book, Poppy is a “baby” about two-and-a-half years old. Lina and Doon are 12 in the book, but while Lina was played by a 14-year old, Doon was played by a 24-year old! Meanwhile, Lina’s friend Lizzie was played a 17-year old and her unofficial boyfriend was played by an actor twenty years older!

Did Lina and Doon’s fathers illegally plot to Escape? In the movie, Lina and Doon are robbed of some of the credit for finding an exit because they aren’t the first ones who have looked, just the first ones to have found the Builders’ instructions. In the book, Doon’s father tells him to “pay attention” but is not a former believer in an exit, and Lina’s father died from an illness, not an escape attempt. In the book, Lina explicitly says there’s no law against trying to leave Ember.

What technology did the people of Ember have? They used messengers instead of, say, email because the Builders (and the implied nuclear war from which they were trying to save humanity) existed before the internet or even personal computers. Lina and Doon live in our future, but the first mayor is from our past. So in the movie, why did Lina have a tape from a broken answering machine?!?

Why does Lina use blue to fill in the sky over the city in her drawing? In the movie, the pencil is short and it’s not clear whether she chose blue on purpose, or why she would do that, never having seen the sky. In the book, her choice of blue is a result of her self-indulgent purchase of two brand-new pencils, one blue and one green.

How big are the animals of Ember? In the book, Doon is interested in insects and other animals found in Ember, but there is no suggestion that radiation has increased their size. The problem with the giant animals is that Doon compares them with tiny ones shown in a book, and the people of Ember aren’t supposed to have any books about what life was like 200 years ago on the surface of Earth. The Builders didn’t want them to know what they had lost. FYI, there really are moles with tentacle noses, though they’re neither huge nor aggressive as shown in the movie’s dramatic monster attacks.

Who is Sul? The character Sul does not exist in the book. I’m not sure what purpose he serves. In the book, Doon had a Pipeworks map of his own. In the movie, Doon could have fixed the waterwheel himself. Maybe Sul is needed to convey facts about Lina’s father’s death.

Where are the escape boats? In the book, the boats are really well hidden. In the movie, the Pipeworks lockers are actually boats, and the wheel for launching them is right there beside the lockers, and the track that takes them to the river is part of the floor. You’d think someone would have noticed, not that the adults in the movie ever seem to be firing on all cylinders.

How does the generator work? In the book, the generator is powered by the underground river. The movie showed a water-powered generator with two waterwheels. I am not sure whether it makes sense for there to be two wheels, or for the wheels to be able to change direction, but I did check to see whether it makes any sense to have the water push the wheels from the bottom, since I tend to think of waterwheels as using the power of water falling from the top. It turns out that there are several types of waterwheel, and at least one kind has water flowing underneath.

What’s in the Box? In the book, there’s no plastic key in the Box, just a piece of paper with instructions. I think it’s nice that Poppy helps Lina and Doon escape in the movie, but in general the key just made things more complicated when they should have been simpler.

What is the river like? In the book, you can’t go up the fast-flowing river that serves as the exit to Ember (unless you have a motorboat). In the movie, the river pushes Lina and Doon’s boat down a kind of roller-coaster flume ride that seems to launch them into the air at one point. No motorboat could navigate the river back to Ember the way they came out! So having the exit also be the entrance doesn’t make sense. A large part of the plot of The Diamond of Darkhold (Ember Book 4) involves people having to go to extreme lengths to return to Ember. Not that there will ever be a fourth movie—or even a second—it bothers me that the continuity is ruined.

How does it end? The movie ties the end of Ember to its beginning using the entrance/exit room. At the end of the book, a similar function is performed by the diary Lina finds. It was written by one of the first inhabitants of Ember and brought to Ember against the rules. Reading it, Lina learns a little about how the city was founded.

What’s the theme? The movie ends in an unsatisfying way that undercuts the problem-solving theme of the book. Despite the determined efforts of Lina and Doon to secure the future of Ember, the narrator credits the success of their rescue of the people of Ember to fate!

Other differences between Ember (the book) and Ember (the movie):

Here are some details from the book that are distorted or lost in the movie:

  • The 7th mayor didn’t just die suddenly, he removed the box from the gathering hall and tried to open it to find a cure for his illness.
  • Lina and Doon have a backstory. They were friends until Doon lost some kind of dare about climbing a lamppost and Lina was embarrassed to talk to him because he took losing too seriously.
  • Doon has a serious anger problem. It’s a righteous anger that drives him to solve problems, but as his father warns him, anger sometimes has unintended consequences.
  • Doon has a caterpillar that transforms into a moth; Lina has a bean that grows into a bean seedling. Life finds a way.
  • Lina loses Poppy when she goes into Looper’s black market shop to buy two colored pencils. Lina finds Poppy at Doon’s father’s shop.
  • The man who returned from the dark Unknown Regions claims there are huge rats out there. It seems that he is crazy and did not actually encounter huge rats.
  • The mayor’s inspirational speech is garbled. The back of the crowd can’t hear his words clearly until his words are repeated by others.
  • Doon is the one who finds the mayor in the hidden food room.
  • Lina’s boss, not her neighbor, is the one who believes the builders will return. Lina’s neighbor, not Doon’s father, is the one who finds the note that Lina and Doon drop from the surface.
  • Doon’s goal is to fix the generator, but when he sees how complicated it is, he gives up and decides to try to make a moveable light instead.
  • The instructions speak of an “egres[s]” not an “exit”.
  • The sequence of events at the end is different. Lina and Doon tell the head guard about the mayor stealing food. He lets them go. Then they find the boats. Then they return to town hoping to hear that the mayor has been arrested and hoping to get the chance to tell people about the boats. When they realize they are wanted by the mayor and his guards, they return to the boats after Lina fetches Poppy and Doon fetches a sack full of stuff.
  • When Lina and Doon emerge, they see the moon and stars. They are fascinated but they do not consider the moon to be enough light. They are also fascinated by birds. They see a fox eat a plum, so they know that the plums are safe for them to eat. This is a beautiful and important moment for Lina.


A lot of the reviews are focused on advising parents on whether they will find it suitable for their children. I wish Ember (the movie) were worthy of being taken seriously by all ages. Ember (the book) is!

  • Reel Views gives it a positive review and a rating of 3 out of 4 stars.
  • Empire Online gives it 3 out of 5 stars and likes the set but not the storytelling.
  • The New York Times says the lead actress’ talents were wasted on a poor screenplay. It also claims the film’s message is anti-technology, which doesn’t seem quite right to me. Certainly the books are not.

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