The exasperated rumble of dying machinery -- to our pampered ears, the sound of civilization ending -- is the aural backdrop of "City of Ember," a grim fantasy about a cloistered subterranean metropolis that wants to be both a kids' adventure and a dystopian finger-wag. That director Gil Kenan's second feature -- following the snappy motion-capture animated film "Monster House" -- never quite succeeds as either is a shame for all the dazzling craftsmanship brought forth from its production team.
Adapted from a highly regarded series of novels by Jeanne Duprau, the film begins with a prologue introducing Ember as a post-apocalyptic underground way station for humanity, a bunker village with a massive generator meant to last 200 years. But along the way the release plan was forgotten and supplies are diminishing and blackouts frequent.
The main action starts after Ember's 200th year, when Lina (Saoirse Ronan) discovers an old metal box in her closet with contents that cryptically hint at a way out for Ember's citizens. She and her classmate Doon (Harry Treadaway) band together in what becomes a quest to save the city from literally fading to black.
It's no surprise that "City of Ember," with its yellowing electrical hue and paranoia about faulty infrastructure, carries a none-too-subtle warning against living in the past when it comes to energy dependence. Its other political message is that solving society's problems is invariably left up to future generations. Lina and Doon are almost constantly filmed running, it seems, while the movie's adult characters -- including Martin Landau as Doon's ancient Pipeworks boss and Toby Jones as a city hall henchman -- at one point or another sleep, obfuscate, espouse blind faith, lie or just act nuts. It culminates in a tubby Bill Murray -- dryly effective as Ember's corrupt, self-preserving mayor -- delivering the movie's funniest moment, reassuring the worried citizenry with brazen double talk: "More important than answers, we need solutions."
None of this means that the film is necessarily enjoyable to watch, however, which is often the problem when the rigors of inspired storytelling can't live up to an imaginatively designed filmic world. A fright sequence with a CGI-created mega-mole creature, for example, is sufficiently creepy but feels shoehorned in to manufacture excitement. And while Ronan and Treadaway are certainly serious young performers, they don't exhibit too much personality as urgent saviors. Kenan saves his penchant for epic mayhem for the last act, but when he hurtles his heroes into puzzle-solving mode -- involving an incomplete map, moving doors, transforming objects, shifting floors and wild water rides -- he might as well be making "Indiana Jones and the Engine Room of Doom."
By then, no matter how stunningly realized the buried hydroelectric ghetto, the characters' long-sought daylight can't come fast enough.
"City of Ember." MPAA rating: PG for mild peril and some thematic elements. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. In general release.