In The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones we are handed the revelation that the world we think we know exists on top of a supernatural plane in which the forces of good and evil are constantly at war. New York teenager Clary Fray (Lily Collins) lives a normal existence – that is, until her latest birthday reveals strange new powers like “the sight” – a mystery that turns into panic when Clary’s overprotective mother, Jocelyn (Lena Headey), goes missing.
While on the search for her mom, Clary is attacked by a fearsome demon – only to be saved by Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), a mysterious demon-hunter (“shadowhunter”) that only Clary seems to see. Jace reveals to Clary that she – like her mother – is one of a select group of shadowhunters, tasked with protecting the world from demonic forces. With a dark threat rising, and her mother in peril, Clary, Jace, and their allies will wage warrior against a clandestine threat within the shadowhunter order, while searching for the powerful talisman known as The Mortal Cup, whose location only Jocelyn knows for sure.
The Young Adult movie genre has gotten something of a stigma since Twilight invaded the mainstream, and most moviegoers approach any film within that genre – specifically the YA supernatural sub-genre – with a very critical eye for quality storytelling over hokey romance fantasy and skewed supernatural mythology. I’m proud to report that despite having a very skilled cast of both younger and older actors doing it justice, the material propping up The Mortal Instruments is every YA genre skeptic’s nightmare, and the cinematic interpretation is such an overwrought, drab and cumbersome film that it’s not even a suitable popcorn-muncher to help pass the time.
At the helm is director Harald Zwart, who is best known for the 2010 Karate Kid reboot and his early 2000s film, Agent Cody Banks. City of Bones is an ugly movie (in no uncertain terms) that squanders so much potential. The blocking, framing, angles and mis-en-scene are poorly imagined and executed; the cinematography by Hollywood newcomer Geir Hartly Andreasen looks like someone’s grainy home video; and the director can’t seem to capture or realize any of the imaginativeness of the source material – ultimately resulting in a fantastical world that looks anything BUT fantastical.
Zwart even manages to make his pretty leads just as often look awkward, grimy or otherwise unattractive – a rare feat in filmmaking. In terms of both action and (budgeted) visual effects, however, City of Bones is a definite step up from The Twilight Saga, offering a few sequences of genuinely exciting action and/or visual splendor.
To be fair, beyond the imaginative world and premise, there isn’t much good material for Zwart to work with. City of Bones screenplay writer Jessica Postigo tried to streamline the convoluted novel by Cassandra Clare, but still winds up with an overwrought story that has little emotional punch or payoff and a whole lot of awkwardness by the end. It starts as an intriguing enough mystery, evolves into a suitable second-act quest; however, some third-act “twists” just derail whatever narrative momentum the story manages to build, and muddles both the mythology and character relationships developed up to that point, leaving us with an awkward ending that doesn’t feel much like an ending so much as a chapter break.
This story also has more sappy romantic drama and soap opera-style love triangles than Twilight ever did, making it even more exhausting to endure. As this is both an adaptation and the opening chapter in a larger saga, there are many subplots, foreshadowings and other developments that the movie introduces but fails to explain or resolve – a detriment when set against the need for a film to tell a complete standalone story.
Too bad for the cast of actors in the crossfire, as they manage to do pretty well with their characters and the flimsy material they’re working with. Blind Side and Mirror Mirror star Lily Collins is overqualified for her role, bringing real gravitas and emotion to a performance that is ultimately doomed by the movie around it. Jamie Campbell Bower is sharp and witty as Jace, Clary’s newfound ally and love interest, and he and Collins have strong chemistry. Supporting players like Jace’s adopted siblings Alec (Kevin Zegers) and Isabelle (Jemima West) or Clary’s competing love interest, Simon (Robert Sheehan), are all interesting but ultimately shortchanged by a narrative that spreads itself way too thin in both focus and development.
There is also a cast of well-known stars given bit parts to play (to varying fun or ridiculousness). Game of Thrones star Lena Headey; Mad Men star Jared Harris; Tudors star Jonathan Rhys Meyers; Being Human star Aidan Turner; Warehouse 13 star CCH Pounder and Lost star Kevin Durand are just a few of the quality character actors this film manages to (somehow) wrangle together. With the exception of Meyers, the veteran actors’ respective scenes certainly elevate the material where possible – but unfortunately, those scenes are few.
In the end, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is yet another would-be franchise trying (and quite likely failing) to fill the post-Twilight void. Even with a richer, darker, more action-packed premise; a more intriguing world; and a cast featuring some quality UK thespians with actual acting chops in the leads, there is just no denying that the story and the movie are both sub-par, forgettable – and worst of all, crushingly boring by the end. Bury this one under a city of bones, and tell the cast to seek more lively pastures.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is now in theaters. It is 130 minutes and is rated PG-13 for Intense sequences of fantasy violence and action, and some suggestive content.