I can understand how it might be appealing for a teenager to disappear into a text about a young person like them, living a pretty normal life, until they suddenly discover that they have special powers and really belong to a secret, magical world. That basic formula works as the premise for a range of young adult and children’s fantasy stories. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones takes this starting point and runs with it, mashing together a variety of mythical enemies such as vampires and demons. Only, The Mortal Instruments apparently tries to capture the young hipster audience in a way that hipsters would hate.
The story opens in Brooklyn, on Clary Fray’s (Lily Collins) birthday. Her mother, Jocelyn (Lena Heady), is anxious about Clary getting home safely, but hesitant to tell her why. Before Jocelyn can have a talk with her daughter, Clary begins seeing things—symbols, people, monsters—that no one else can see. Her best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) starts to seriously worry about her. Then, just as Clary starts to seek help, her mother disappears, following a brutal fight at their apartment. Clary herself narrowly escapes a hell-hound thanks to the help of Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), a blonde, brooding Shadowhunter (demon hunter), who finally tells her what is going on. When she was pregnant with Clary, Jocelyn, also a powerful Shadowhunter, ran off with a cup that enabled the Shadowhunters, who are descended from Angels, to create new Shadowhunters. Her husband, Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), was using the cup to experiment on himself in hopes of creating a master race. Clary has no memories of her mother’s work as a Shadowhunter, or where the cup might be, because each year Jocelyn took her to a witch to have her memory blocked. So, it’s up to Clary to regain the memories that her mother blocked and find her mother and the cup before Valentine does. Meanwhile, Jace falls for her fast, creating a love triangle between himself, Clary, and Simon who has pined for her for years. The love triangle, after all, is required in this genre. In an attempt to make it more interesting, Jace’s best friend, Alec (Kevin Zegers—aka the kid from Air Bud) is also in love with him.
The Mortal Instruments has some fun moments. As Jace, Jamie Campbell Bower has a dry delivery that works well for a variety of one-liners. On the other hand, he’s so overly cast in the perpetually bare-chested, sulking, dangerous love interest category (a la Edward Cullen) that it’s hard to enjoy his time on screen. I also thought it was cool to see Jocelyn fight Valentine’s thugs using a frying pan and a refrigerator door. The best fight scenes of the movie take place in a cramped Brooklyn apartment rather than the vast “institute” where the Shadowhunters live. In another fight scene, Clary is dressed up like a video game character, including thigh-high boots. Unlike a plethora of action babes before her, she takes a moment to take off the high-heeled boots before walking into a dangerous situation—an obvious mark of a female screenwriter. These moments of irony shine through in a film that otherwise takes itself too seriously.
Aside from these few moments of creativity, The Mortal Instruments lags along with an overwrought but uninspired plot. It all feels so recycled that I rolled my eyes at every other scene. Although Lily Collins carries the movie well, especially in the beginning moments when she goes to the frantic, ugly places, it’s not really a movie worth carrying. She and Bower have a lot of chemistry, but their scenes are mired in cliches that the hipster kids they are supposed to represent would loathe.
Overall, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones does little to set up a successful franchise. I can imagine that the book had more depth and character development, but the film flatly meanders through one obstacle after another so that by the time it reached the climax I no longer cared. I rate it 2/5 stars.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones was written by Jessica Postigo based on the novel by Cassandra Clare and directed by Harald Zwart. It runs 130 minutes and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of fantasy violence and action, and some suggestive content.