irony in city of ember (spoilers!)

If you haven’t seen City of Ember and don’t want any spoilers, I suggest skipping this post. If you have, or you don’t mind having the end revealed, then read on…

In my review of City of Ember, I pointed out how the film lacks the kind of irony that gives characters depth. The best example lies in the character of Mayor Cole, played by Bill Murray with amusingly detached self-absorption. In Ember, the Mayor is not only responsible for managing the city, but for protecting a box with a timer gradually counting back from two hundred to zero. This is the amount of time that the city’s builders estimated it would take for the Earth surface to become habitable again after an unspecified apocalyptic disaster. And what’s so important about the box? Instructions on how to leave Ember.

In one of the film’s common-sense defying, but necessary, plot contrivances, the box gets lost sometime during the succession of mayors. Mayor Cole, then, may know about the box’s existence, but he clearly doesn’t have the mayoral knowledge that was passed down with the responsibility of safeguarding the box. Of course, the film is set at the time when the timer reaches zero. Ember is in a state of severe deterioration, the city’s hydroelectric generator is failing, food and other supplies are desperately low. Naturally, the Mayor does what any greedy bastard would do: steal supplies and hoard them in a secret lair where he can retreat too while everyone else perishes.

Naturally, Mayor Cole reaches an end befitting his villainy. The city discovers his duplicity while the kid heroes make their escape, and Mayor Cole heads for his lair, locks out his faithful accomplice…only to get attacked by a giant mutant mole rat. Ho, hum.

Let me present a different scenario. The city is desperate. The generator is at the critical breaking point. The kid heroes have discovered the box and figured the way out, but the Mayor’s hollow promises and obtuse politicking have left them no choice but to strike out on their own. Yet not all the population is fooled; they know something terrible is happening. In the confusion and disorder of an increasingly panicked population, the Mayor is revealed for what he is: a coward who put his own welfare above the people he ostensibly served. Fearful, Mayor Cole makes a run for his secret lair. Eventually, the kids find their out and, with the adults perfectly capable of tracing their footsteps given the machines they activated on their way, the remainder of Ember’s population follows. The city then collapses. The underground river overflows, flooding the streets and underground tunnels that make up Ember’s infrastructure – including the tunnel leading to Mayor Cole’s lair. With no way out, but guaranteed a lifetime’s supply of food and air, the Mayor is essentially buried alive with no way out. Depending on how vicious you want to be, he could either be oblivious to the fact that Ember’s people escaped, or he could be fully aware and helpless to do anything about it.

Now that’s irony, and it would work especially well if the character were developed to be more than just a weak, cowardly man, but a man whose dedication to public service became eroded by cynical fatalism and debauched indifference.

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