It worries me how frequently Hollywood insults the intelligence of young people. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, the latest in a long string of YA adaptations attempting to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle success of Twilight, is just another blatant offender, presuming that its target audience will be too distracted by a photogenic cast and visuals to notice that it doesn’t have a single original idea in its pretty little head.
The clichés start piling on quickly, as protagonist Clary Fray (Lily Collins) discovers a hidden world within our own after witnessing something she can’t explain. Before you can say “Hogwarts,” she’s been whisked away to an invisible mansion in the middle of Manhattan, where she learns that she’s a Shadowhunter, a human with angelic blood, destined to kill demons in order to protect Mundanes (that’s the rest of us). After her mother (Lena Headey) is abducted by a powerful enemy searching for the Mortal Cup, an object capable of creating an evil Shadowhunter army, Clary must embark on a quest to save her, with the help of a team of Shadowhunters evidently torn from the pages of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog.
Lest City of Bones wander too far from other fantasy franchises, there’s an overly convoluted non-starter of a love triangle at the story’s center, this one involving Clary, her loyal friend Simon (Robert Sheehan), and a brooding Shadowhunter named Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower). Suffice to say, the film’s target audience will eat it up, but the whole affair is so derivative that they might have trouble remembering who’s who as the credits roll.
As the film attempts to establish its characters and universe, the massive debt it owes to everything from Twilight to Harry Potter to even The Empire Strikes Back becomes painfully obvious (particularly in the film’s final act, when a series of preposterous twists rock the characters, and Clary starts drawing ‘runes’ with magical powers). Werewolves, vampires, and warlocks all factor into the mix. That said, a lack of originality has never been the kiss of death for teen-targeted franchises, and City of Bones’ heartthrob cast might keep the audience interested in the already announced sequel.
As Clary, Collins is a surprisingly capable lead, showing off a much greater range than in her previous films. And if she’s the heir to Kristen Stewart’s rabid fanbase, at least she can crack a smile. Meanwhile, as Jace, Bower proves that angst doesn’t necessitate a wooden performance, delivering a potent blend of smoldering looks and sarcastic one-liners sure to win him a devoted fangirl following. Poor Simon doesn’t stand a chance, though Sheehan does show off some great comic timing. The rest of the film’s young cast are all pretty faces too underdeveloped to leave an impression, a shame considering the audience is meant to buy them as a well-oiled, demon-hunting team.
Special effects pick up the slack when City of Bones runs out of coherent story – the werewolves and demons are both impressively rendered, and there are some neat tricks with a magic portal and Clary’s unexplained ability to make objects two-dimensional. However, all of the eye candy, including almost the entire cast, is simply a feeble diversion from the film’s undeniably lacking plot.
With a better script, City of Bones could have been a great fantasy film, and an exciting start to a new series. However, it’s clear that no one involved could figure out what they wanted the film to be. Tonally, it’s all over the place, hazardously oscillating between humor, romance, and dark fantasy. As a result, none of the genres stick (though, oddly, the film’s comedy works more than anything else), and the film ultimately feels like an unfinished product, as if the filmmakers tried hard to make everything work for the first hour then passed out from sheer exhaustion, allowing it to go completely off the rails with the spectacular abandon of a runaway train.
Sometimes, the changes in tone are jarring, even nauseating, particularly when it comes to the lazy romance between Clary and Jace, bludgeoned to death in several cheesy, Disney-esque scenes set to cringe-inducing romantic anthems. Mostly, the shifts just elicit an indifferent shrug.
The same can be said for the film as a whole. What’s intended to come across as wondrous and magical instead appears far too familiar to garner any new interest from the audience. Nothing ever feels truly remarkable; instead, the filmmakers are simply going through the motions, grouping a collection of clichés in hopes that something will stand out to the film’s young target age demographic. It’s likely that nothing will, save for perhaps some romantic tension and an intriguing set-up for the next installment. Maybe that will be enough, but as teen-targeted fantasy films go, City of Bones demonstrates a shocking lack of substance. Many aspects of the series’ universe go unexplained, and a lot of the tumult over the Mortal Cup seems half-baked, to put it kindly.
There’s plenty to explore in a sequel, if director Harald Zwart can take some risks and break from the mountain of platitudes to which The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones quickly succumbs. But as it stands, the series’ teen target audience deserves better than the bare-bones potpourri of better films that he’s cobbled together this time.
Sadly for supernatural fantasy fans, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is as by-the-numbers as they come, coasting on the good looks of its cast without any of the storytelling magic that made the many films it borrows from so successful. No bones about it.