City of Ember: Pineapple Upside Down Cake

Year Released: 2008
Directed by: Gil Kenan
Starring: Bill Murray, Harry Treadaway, Saoirse Ronan, Tim Robbins, Martin Landau
(PG, 99 min.)

"Come, dear children, let us away." Matthew Arnold

This science fiction/fantasy strikes just the right note between light humor and action as two brave teens try to save their underground city before it reaches its expiration date. Unfortunately, the adults on hand wrap themselves in cocoons of corruption and blankets of denial or numbing despair as the generator that has sustained them for two centuries winds itself and them with it down to oblivion.

The filmmakers let the audience is in on a little secret that somehow has been lost on the locals. This underground city is a last chance escape for humankind fleeing an unnamed catastrophe. Thinking it will be safe in approximately 200 years, the Builders, as they come to be called, set their little silver box for said time, kicking in, we can assume, prior laid plans for this contingency.

Like our own little black box entrusted to the President, each mayor carries the silver one with its history and special knowledge, until, we learn, one dies suddenly and with him, all that vital information. Having been provided with everything by these founders, the hundreds in the City of Ember are unprepared for the unexpected, and when the generator begins to sputter and cough like an aged dragon, they almost cower in its wake.

They wrap themselves in the comfort of their traditions, the opening one a kind of dumbed down graduation ceremony called Assignment Day where each student finds his life calling in a velvet sack the mayor offers. And the slips of paper they randomly draw are not particularly inspiring, offering assignments like Pipeworks, Storeroom, or Messenger.

The first sign that at least two young people do not completely yield to their random fates is when Lina (Saoirse Ronan from Atonement) switches her Pipeworks with Doon (Harry Treadaway) for his Messenger. For Lina, running around the city in her identifying red cloak like some medieval town crier is the ultimate dream – maybe it’s the uniform, which is actually retro cool. Doon hopes to use his Pipeworks assignment to get to the failing generator to fix it, and we know tinkering is in his genes, since his dad (Tim Robbins) has their home looking like a graveyard for ancient Rube Goldberg science projects.

The two ultimately team up to save the city from itself, but half the fun rests in the adults they have to get around to do it. The well-known actors guarding the moribund status quo of the dying city seem to relish their roles, too, embodying types we are too sadly familiar within our own above ground lives.

Bill Murray is Mayor Cole, a platitude-spouting politician who spends most of his time lining his own pockets, or in this case, his very ample belly with the ever-dwindling food supply. Instead of enlisting the young people in a mission to fix the generator, he happily pats their heads on Assignment Day, prattling on about the great importance of each menial job assigned in their dead end world, which he refuses to acknowledge is slowing grinding to a halt.

The ever inventive master of TV’s Mission Impossible, Martin Landau, plays his antithesis here, a robot like worker who refuses to notice anything he labels as “not my job,” although this zombie-like oldster, who spends most of his days dozing at the controls, summons a sense of courage at last to go out as a hero. 

Mary Kay Place is Mrs. Murdo, a starry-eyed believer who sees endless “sunshine” under Ember’s fading light bulbs even as they spark and sputter above her empty head.

And Tim Robbins as Doon’s father swallows his despair as he putters away at home, his words as tangled and cryptic as the contraptions that litter his quarters. Little does Doon imagine that one of them may help unlock a mystery essential to their survival?

At last an end of the world flick with a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel that is not an oncoming train, an “ember” of hope, at least.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

 When Lina Mayfleet stumbles upon her friend with a can of pineapples, she is amazed, since pineapples haven’t been seen in the City of Ember for years. This innocent tinned fruit leads to the discovery of corruption and food hoarding at the highest levels, although the mayor’s very protuberant belly should have given him away much sooner.

Let’s find a better home for those pineapples than the corpulent mayor’s tummy. How does Pineapple Upside Down Cake sound? This one gets a special warm crisp flavor from the cast iron frying pan that serves as a baking dish. What a delicious way to end (or begin if you’re not tied to convention) a cool, crisp autumn day!

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

  • 2/3 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar

Place the butter and brown sugar in a frying pan and melt until it boils or bubbles. A cast iron pan works well because it is heavy and will be less likely to scorch.

  • 1 can pineapple slices
  • Maraschino cherries (enough to fill centers of pineapples)

Place pineapples in the butter and sugar mixture. Put cherries in the center of the pineapple. Cut the slices of pineapple into halves and line the sides of the frying pan with them (standing up on edge).

Prepare a box of yellow cake mix following the directions on the box to mix the batter (do not bake in a separate pan; follow instructions below).

Pour the batter over the pineapple and cherries.

Bake at 350°F degrees. When the cake is done, loosen the edges with a butter knife. Remove from heat and allow to sit five minutes, and then turn it upside down on a serving dish.

Recipe Source: