Mortal Instruments, The: City of Bones (United States, 2013)

August 20, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Mortal Instruments, The: City of Bones Poster

Spoilers... I guess. Those who care, however, will have already read the book and therefore can't be spoiled.

When it comes to movies based on YA novels, there are two flavors: those designed exclusively for fans of the books (Twilight, for example) and those that seek to draw in a wider (and possibly partially male) audience (The Hunger Games, for example). The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is a card-carrying member of the former group. Only an aficionado of the source material could love this film and it's made with that viewer in mind. The rest of us - unenlightened philistines who haven't visited Cassandra Clare's universe of angels, demons, witches, vampires, and werewolves - aren't part of the box office success formula. That may sound cynical but, if you see the movie, you'll understand the perspective. This is a negative review but it doesn't come from the pen of someone with a deep and abiding love for The Mortal Instruments saga.

To its credit, Jessica Postigo Paquette's screenplay makes some changes to the novel in order to provide more closure. If City of Bones was to be the only adaptation of a Mortal Instruments book, at least it can be said to be reasonably self-contained. (This is highly unlikely since the sequel has already been greenlighted.) There are some "hooks" into future installments that are clumsily inserted and feel more like plot holes, but at least the ending isn't an outright cliffhanger.

The storyline is at times muddled and incoherent. This won't bother readers much since they have the "inside track" on what's happening. Then again, the narrative is so predictable that maybe it doesn't matter. Most fantasy stories adhere to certain tropes - it creates a sense of comfortable familiarity. What separates good from bad in the genre are the details and the little delights. This is where City of Bones disappoints. It sticks so closely to the YA formula that it feels like a mashup of a watery fantasy with soap opera. Suds overflow. I was frankly reminded of Dark Shadows (the TV series, not the movie).

Will it cause surprise and consternation that there's a possible incestuous twist to the main love story? Not really. The movie diffuses this by having a secondary character explain the underlying "lie." And, because The Mortal Instruments saga would have been excoriated by fans for not resolving this dilemma favorably, one needn't be concerned about any icky brother/sister copulation. Although City of Bones ends with some lingering ambiguity about this relationship, it's more in the characters' minds than the viewers'.

The movie takes place in New York. As anyone who has spent a fair amount of time there knows, the city is full of demons. It takes someone with angel blood to see them, however - like teenager Clary (Lily Collins), who's about to embark on an adventure that reveals her secret powers. When you think about it, City of Bones could be seen as a superhero origin story. Throw in the romantic triangle and you have Spider-Man with a less interesting villain, cheesier dialogue, and no upside-down kiss. In between episodes related to her attempts to learn what it means to be a shadowhunter, Clary bounces back and forth between the two guys who want to get into her pants. The first is Simon (Robert Sheehan), a nerdy "mundane" who is stuck in the friend zone. Then there's the hot, often bare-chested Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) who gets Clary's juices going the way poor Simon never will. I suspect the average viewer will be more invested in the romantic triangle than the tired tale of how a megalomaniac shadowhunter named Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) wants to use Clary's secret talents to uncover a hidden relic called the "Mortal Cup," which is a key to immense power. Or something like that. Clary, Jace, and Simon are joined by two other shadowhunters, Alec (Kevin Zegers) and Isabelle (Jemima West). There are also werewolves and vampires. I'm guessing that future installments of The Mortal Instruments will have Simon turning into a vampire and hooking up with Isabelle. These developments are based on what could generously be described as unsubtle foreshadowing.

Lily Collins is an attractive actress but there's not much evidence that her acting skills have advanced since Mirror Mirror. While sparks don't fly between her and Jamie Campbell Bower, at least there are a few fitful embers. Lena Headey, who has a supporting role as Clary's mother, looks bored, possibly because she's comparing City of Bones' narrative trajectory with that of Game of Thrones. Jonathan Rhys Meyers seems to enjoy hamming it up even though the movie's shaky foundation starts to crumble the moment he shows up. Jared Harris has a bizarre part; most of his scenes must have ended up on the cutting room floor because his character - the legendary shadowhunter Hodge - makes no sense whatsoever.

The director is Harald Zwart, whose unimpressive resume (Agent Cody Banks, The Pink Panther 2, The Karate Kid remake) raises all manner of red flags. Sadly, those are warranted. One scene that could have (and should have) crackled with suppressed sexual tension and playful rivalry - a trading of quips about Bach - feels rushed and doesn't have the necessary zing. It's a minor misstep but symptomatic of a larger problem. City of Bones lacks the energy and intelligence to achieve sufficient elevation above its overly familiar plot to make it worthy of the attention of anyone who hasn't fallen in love with Clare's books. The only question remaining is whether the fan base is a large and thriving one like Twilight's or an uncaring one like Beautiful Creatures'. The answer to that question will reveal how many more of these movies we're going to be subjected to.

Mortal Instruments, The: City of Bones (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2013-08-21
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1