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CITY OF EMBER – Andrew Lockington

October 10, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A lavish sci-fi fantasy based on the novel by Jeanne Duprau, City of Ember is the second film from director Gil Kenan, following his animated 2006 debut, Monster House. The film stars Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadway as Lina and Doon, two teenagers who live in the underground city of Ember, built several centuries previously when the surface of the Earth was left uninhabitable by an unspecified disaster. Lina and Doon begin to discover some dark secrets about Ember: the city is crumbling, both physically and morally, and the corrupt mayor Cole (Bill Murray) doesn’t seem to care. Taking the advice of several similarly disillusioned inhabitants of Ember, Lina and Doon take it upon themselves to escape from Ember, and a way back to the surface. The film, which also stars Mackenzie Crook, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Martin Landau and Tim Robbins, boasts dazzling production design and special effects, and features an original score by up-and-coming Canadian composer Andrew Lockington.

Originally, City of Ember was to be scored by Kenan’s composer on Monster House, Douglas Pipes, but for whatever reason Pipes’ score was rejected and Lockington came in to replace him. If Lockington truly was a late addition to the post-production crew, it would go some way to explaining why City of Ember is not quite the score it could have been: while still enjoyable, it has the slight feeling of being just a little bit rushed, a little bit last-minute, and never truly comes across as being as well-structured as some of Lockington’s other works, such as Skinwalkers or Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Having said that, there is still a great deal to admire in City of Ember. Lockington’s mastery of using a full orchestra is still apparent, as is his knack for writing memorable main themes. The theme from City of Ember, first heard in the “Main Title”, is a typically strident and noble affair, full of dramatic horn chords and string string writing. The presence of Nicholas Dodd in the orchestrations and wielding the baton is also quite evident; some of the little touches and flourishes are obviously his work, as they carry over from the scores he orchestrated for David Arnold, Mychael Danna and Clint Mansell in recent years.

The bulk of the score, however, tends to be a tiny bit repetitive. The actual writing is fine, and some of the touches in instrumentation, or orchestral color, or performance technique, are quite superb. The problem, really, is that it seems to over-rely on performances of the main theme in every cue. It’s almost as though Lockington, in a valiant effort to give the score a sense of itself and an internal structure, decided to base almost every musical moment around his main theme, with the hope that having such an obvious core element would give it a cohesive flow. Unfortunately, and while the theme in itself is very good, the end result comes across as a one-idea score. As I mentioned before, this is quite likely a time thing: Lockington likely had so little time to invest in the creation of a sonic world for City of Ember, he just took his impressive orchestral know-how and through-composed.

Having said that, there are still several moments of musical excellence that are worth picking out. The main secondary theme, for “Lina Mayfleet” is a little more sprightly and energetic, making use of a more lyrical string element underpinned by a staccato piano motif and flighty woodwinds. Its second performance, at the beginning of “Job Exchange” is a nice continuation of the melodic content, while the tremulous pianos underpin several other cues, notably “Message for Clary”, where they come across like rapid-fire Morse code, filtered through John Adams.

There is also a great deal of impressive dissonance and throbbing action material, some of which includes a prominent ticking synth undercurrent, and the bulk of which makes up the score’s finale. Cues such as “Tunnels” and “Room 351” see the main theme is restated in a powerful action setting complete with choir, while “Map and Mole” has the string writing going into frantic overdrive. Later, cues such as “Fugitives” and “Loris’s Bike” are wonderfully vigorous and exciting, and as the score builds to its conclusion, through the stirring “Clockworks”, the thunderous “Control Room” and the dark, dramatic “Water Wheel”, you begin to feel a real sense of scope and emotion in Lockington’s writing. The penultimate cue, “Escape to Sunrise”, is a beautiful, poignant restatement of the main theme with an angelic choir accompanying it; the finale, “One Last Message”, is one of those overpoweringly heroic pieces with powerful major-key chord progressions which run tingles down the listener’s spine.

It may seem that my review is at odds with itself; on the one hand, I’m criticizing it for over-reliance on a single theme, whereas on the other hand I’m praising it for being stirring and powerful and impressive, and giving it four stars. The truth of the matter is that I’m actually a little torn: there’s no doubt that City of Ember, taken at face value, has a lot going for it, and will undoubtedly bring more fans into Andrew Lockington’s camp, especially having composed Journey to the Center of the Earth in 2008 as well. The thing is, I just can’t help this nagging little feeling that, had Lockington been on board the project from day one, and had he been given more time to work on his musical world, and not just simply be content to provide dozens of (admittedly very impressive) variations on the same theme, it might have been better still.

Rating: ****

Buy the City of Ember soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Titles (3:30)
  • Lina Mayfleet (1:30)
  • Assignment Day (2:19)
  • Job Exchange (2:29)
  • Blue Sky (1:10)
  • First Day 92:07)
  • Message for Clary (0:52)
  • Tunnels (6:59)
  • The Mayor (2:01)
  • The Box of Ember (2:52)
  • Blackout (1:57)
  • Map and Mole (4:58)
  • Room 351 (3:11)
  • Proof (4:32)
  • Fugitives (3:08)
  • Loris’ Bike (4:04)
  • Interlocking Keys (0:42)
  • Clockworks (5:42)
  • Control Room (4:36)
  • Water Wheel (2:53)
  • The Mayor Retreats (1:08)
  • Stalagmite Trance (0:48)
  • Escape to Sunrise (4:58)
  • One Last Message (3:05)

Running Time: 71 minutes 41 seconds

Digital Download (2008)

Music composed by Andrew Lockington. Conducted and orchestrated by Nicholas Dodd. Recorded and mixed by Andrew Dudman. Edited by Zigmund Gron, Kenneth Karman and Jeremy Raub. Album produced by Andrew Lockington.

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