Movie review: Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
The first installment of a projected supernatural franchise is far worse than you may have expected
Posted: September 11, 2013
Make it stop. Clary Fray (Lily Collins) uses her newly discovered powers as a wielder of custom runes to freeze enemies in their place.
Based on the fantasy novels by Cassandra Clare and containing elements familiar to anyone who has ever seen a film dealing with vampires or werewolves or witches or teenagers, or all of the above, the past few years, Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is below-par, even in the much-derided genre of romantic supernatural thrillers.
Of course, as with all these kinds of films, it's all about teenage angst and the feeling of not fitting in, and our protagonist has to grow up very quickly when she learns of her supernatural lineage and is forced to confront the demons within and without.
"She" is Clary Fray (Lily Collins), but while her mother - a woman with immense powers who wanted to save her little girl by not telling her a single thing, thereby putting her precious life in danger because she is wholly ignorant of and unprepared for the impending doom - certainly doesn't help her deal with the strange, perilous world she encounters, she does have backup: the Shadowhunters, who fight evil most people don't even see. But since most people are not affected by these spirits, the importance of these creatures is somewhat undermined as they seem to be wholly separate from the lives of people in the "real" world.
The most significant point about the Shadowhunters is that they all speak British and that Clary is somehow special because - even though she is a Shadowhunter herself - she speaks American English. We are never given any explanation why the filmmakers chose to have the underworld speak British (is it the age-old stereotype that it somehow sounds more elevated?), but it is obvious Clary stands out against this background, even though her own character is barely developed.
Directed by Harald Zwart
With Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheehan, Lena Headey
Apparently any notion of development goes flying out the window when there is supernatural romance in the air. Mortal Instruments doesn't only settle on one romance, but gives most of its characters raging hormones in the vain hope it may lead to tension between them and sympathy from the audience.
The plot is minimal, considering the movie runs well past the two-hour mark. The young Clary keeps drawing one symbol that she has never seen before and cannot explain what it means or why she is suddenly so obsessed with it. Her mother notices the mark (or rune) and recognizes it but doesn't want to talk to her daughter about it. This silence inevitably leads to the mother being confronted by demons from the underworld who want her daughter and the elusive "Mortal Cup," so desired by their master, the archvillain Valentine (Jonathan Rhys-Myers), for world domination or something.
Clary's best friend, Simon (Robert Sheehan), has a crush on her so big she is the only person in the world who doesn't notice it, and he will spend the rest of the running time vying for her attention against the much more aggressive and charming onslaught of the Shadowhunter named Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower).
This is light years - or rather, multiple dimensions - removed from the apex of director Harald Zwart's career. His 2001 film One Night at McCool's, a black comedy that used the old but always interesting Rashomon approach of telling the same story from multiple perspectives, was absolutely glorious, even more so because it was a surprise that Liv Tyler, whom one doesn't often associate with high-value entertainment (her brief stint in The Lord of the Rings films notwithstanding), had such a commanding, winning role in the film.
In the case of Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, a title that explicitly hints at a sequel but is only very loosely tied to its material (the titular City of Bones plays a very small role indeed), the only comedy is of the unintended variety, such as a kissing scene in which light suddenly floods the frame and the camera starts to twirl around the figures as if intoxicated by their lust. At another point, poor Clary falls on top of Jace, with her sensitive "best friend" Simon a few short feet away, and as Jace and Clary stare into each other's eyes, Simon does nothing. He is in fact so unimportant to Zwart that he is even visually sidelined, lest he ruin this laughably soppy moment of sugary corn.
Zwart takes the romance way too seriously and shows no sign of realizing how middling his material actually is. The one plot point that will have the audience in stitches concerns the musician Johann Sebastian Bach. If you saw Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter last year, you should know what to expect.
The mother, whom Clary has to thank for not being prepared at all to confront this whole new world of the supernatural, is downright dull, because she is so incredibly passive and doesn't recognize the danger she is putting her only daughter in. When she lies in a coffin, her lips still pouting away, we cannot help but snicker. She had it coming.
Toward the end of the film, Clary uses her powers to clean her apartment instead of doing the work manually. At this point, we have to shake our head in exasperation at the utter wasteland of character development. This will not be the first installment of a long-running franchise, but at least things can't get much worse.
André Crous can be reached at
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