THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES – Not Even For Free – An Incoherent Compendium of YA Tropes
THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES isn’t so much a movie as it is a mash-up. They’re all here, crammed into 130 minutes of screen time–Twilight and Harry Potter and Buffy and True Blood and even Star Wars, with no organizing or overriding intelligence applied to them, so that settings of one smash into plot revelations of another and characters from a third. Watching it is like streaming every YA movie and TV show of the last 30 years at the same time, with only some Red Bull and a faulty dictionary of the English language as supplies.
I can’t claim to have read Cassandra Clare’s original novel (the first, written in 2007, of a series that has already included 5 sequels and 3 prequels, with the promise of many more), so I’m unable to judge whether the script by Jessica Postigo Paquette is a hopeless betrayal of the source material or an accurate representation. In any case, it’s a mess. It manages to combine constant exposition with incoherence; characters always seem to be imparting mystical rules or explaining something, and yet the rules are constantly broken and nothing ever really makes sense.
The main recipient of the explanations is Clary Fray (Lily Collins), who when we meet her is a seemingly ordinary Brooklyn teen who lives with her vaguely hipster single mother, a painter named Jocelyn (Lena Headey, with sadly little screen time). All, of course, is not as it seems, and no sooner can Clary say “rune” before she discovers that she really lives in a world of hidden demons, vampires, werewolves, witches, warlocks, dimensional portals, and lots of cool edged weapons. She herself is a “shadowhunter,” which is sort of a demon-slayer combined with a witch–except, of course, that as is usually the case in this genre, being a mere shadowhunter isn’t enough, Clary is also the franchise’s version of The Chosen One.
It would take comprehension of the plot to be able to fully explain it, but Jocelyn–also a shadowhunter before she went into hiding–turns out to have been guarding one of the “mortal instruments,” a fancy cup with all kinds of mysterious powers. All the demons want that cup, especially Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, also barely around). Before long, Clary is acquainted with pale, androgynous
Edward Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), a shadowhunter to whom she promptly feels passionately drawn, much to the misery of her “mundane” best friend Jacob Simon (Robert Sheehan), who’s always secretly loved her. Jace brings her to Hogwarts the magic castle of shadowhunters that’s invisible to mundane eyes, where she comes under the tutelage of Giles Dumbledore Hodge (Jared Harris). And so on. There’s a vampire battle, a werewolf battle, a betrayal that doesn’t make much sense, a pronouncement that might be shocking if it weren’t a rerun of perhaps the most famous pop culture plot twist of all time, and lots of only mid-level CG.
Perhaps some personality or charisma and a sense of humor might have redeemed this, but those unfortunately weren’t among the lessons picked up from the movie’s influences. There’s little wit, and the occasional attempts are embarrassing (Clary tells a werewolf in human form who’s about to give her a lift that it’s OK if he feels like sticking his head out the window as they drive, and he huffily says he’s a werewolf, not a golden retriever). Collins, playing her second fantasy heroine after Snow White in Mirror Mirror, is no more than cute as Clary, without any of the grit that Jennifer Lawrence and even Kristen Stewart have brought to their YA roles. There is, eventually, an explanation for why her chemistry with Bowers (he makes an awfully logical object of the gay shadowhunter’s otherworldly crush) is pallid and oddly off-putting, but it doesn’t improve the experience of watching them. Sheehan manages to suggest that there might have been a character behind his nerd persona if one had been written for him, and both Headey and CCH Pounder as a fortunetelling neighbor do their best with what they’ve got. (Headey, after Dredd, The Purge and now this, seems to be singlehandedly trying to prove that the best parts for women these days are on TV–sadly, Mortal Instruments didn’t steal anything from Game of Thrones for her.)
There’s nothing special about the filmmaking, which is done on something clearly less than a top-level budget and with little attempt to convincingly pretend the story is taking place in a real New York. Director Harald Zwart, of the Karate Kid remake and Agent Cody Banks, isn’t skilled at simulating epic scale, and some of the action scenes are hopelessly edited (that work is credited to Joel Negron).
With the billions that Twilight, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have earned for their studios, you can’t blame Screen Gems for wanting to get in on the action–and the studio has already announced that production is to begin on a Mortal Instruments sequel next month, although it may want to rethink that idea. But these things–yes, even Twilght–are harder to pull off than they look, and Mortal Instruments is more apt to remind audiences of last spring’s YA flop Beautiful Creatures than any of the genre’s mega-hits.