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Comic Con 2008: Riding the Rails to the Sights and Sounds of 'The City of Ember'

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Jul 24, 2008 | 12:55pm EDT

It's that time of the year again; When people flock from all directions to the south-westernmost tip of the United States and take in the festivities of the San Diego Comic-Con. This year, Fox Walden Studios offered up a fantastic new treat for some of us journalists making the trip down from Los Angeles; a railway train themed after the upcoming fantasy film City of Ember.

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The film, based on the children's book series by Jeanne Duprau, tells of a vast underground city called Ember .The inhabitants have grown used to living in their specialized society and are kept away from the dark mysteries that lay at the city's edges, dwelling in an intricate construct illuminated by a generator that has been running for hundreds of years. History lost to the citizens of Ember, their generator has started to fail and it falls to two children, Lina and Doon, to uncover the answers that may lie beyond the city walls.

Arriving this morning at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, I was instructed to keep my eye out for people in blue jumpsuits. These "Citizens of Ember" lead me to the train car; an old-fashioned carriage decked out with props and costumes and everything on-board from serving bar to a working barbershop. As we boarded, a brass band played a cheery farewell from the railway platform and an Ember official lead the passengers through the city's rules, making us all swear a loyalty oath.

In Ember, children graduate at a young age and are -- through a lottery process -- given jobs that will stay with them for their entire lives. One costume near the back of the train is a long red cloak worn by messengers. Because there are no phones in the city, it becomes the job of the messenger to deliver news through the city streets.

Director Gil Kenan -- the creative force behind 2006's impressive Monster House -- gladly escorted us to an improvised screening room in the back of the train. The first thought of pairing Kenan against the footage is that he looks so young, as though he's fresh out of college, while his film has the determined style of a fantasy auteur.

The first scene he showed introduced us to the characters and the city (which, Kenan explained, was intended to play as vital and as personable a role as any of the actors). The streets have an almost art deco quality combined with a heavy influence of German expressionism. Imagine a utilitarian and fully-functioning rendering of the streets from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and you'll get a sense of some of the visual magic at play in Ember. 

Bill Murray plays the Mayor of Ember in the perfectly deadpan way that only he can, presiding over the citizens and doling out the jobs on graduation day. The lead, Lina, is played by Saoirse Ronan, straight from her Oscar-nominated performance in last years Atonement. Arriving late to her graduation day, Lina is appointed a job working in the sewer system but manages to trade with her friend Doon (Harry Treadaway) and become a messenger instead. It's not long before her new job causes her to find out some secrets about Ember that propel the two of them into a quest to find the city's secrets and a way to keep the lights burning.

Though the original book was written for children, Kenan explains that movie is designed to play to all ages. It's a fantasy and an adventure film, complete with puzzles and chases. "If Indiana Jones were in it," laughs Kenan, "It would be an 'Indiana Jones' movie."

Caroline Thompson, the screenwriter behind cinematic classics Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas was charged with the task of transforming Duprau's world for the silver screen. The intent, she explained, was less about matching the novel exactly and more about providing the same sense of wonder. To that end, there are few creative additions including creatures (some bizarre and some beautiful) that our heroes encounter.

Gracious as he is, Kenan explains that the feel of Ember would have been impossible without the sizable contribution of Production Designer Martin Laing. Laing, coming off years of pre-production work on James Cameron's Avatar and Battle Angel, was overjoyed at the chance to get something up on the screen in such a major way. Ember was built as one massive set, based on sketches and paintings Laing created by hand.

Though a self-contained film, the trilogy of books leaves open the potential for Ember sequels, something to which everyone involved seems interested in potentially pursuing. As for me -- and as exciting as Comic Con is looking to be this year – I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed to step off the railway car in San Diego and leave the City of Ember behind.

I'm looking forward to returning for a full visit on Oct. 10.

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