Movie Review – Mortal Instruments, The: City Of Bones

Derivative young-adult fantasy lacks any kind of intelligence or coherence, in the face of overwhelming plot arcs it tries to cobble together. Featuring two bland lead actors in Collins and Bower, a story so impossibly complex to follow in a two hour film, and no explanation at all for any of it, City Of Bones is mired in inept storytelling and half-baked ideas. Avoid it.


– Summary –

Director :   Harald Zwart
Year Of Release :   2013
Principal Cast :  Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheehan, Kevin Zegers, Lena Headey, Kevin Durand, Aidan Turner, Jemima West, CCH Pounder, Godfrey Gao, Jared Harris, Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
Approx Running Time :   130 Minutes
Synopsis: A young woman learns that she’s really a powerful Shadowhunter, trying to keep a mysterious object out of the grasp of a deadly supernatural being intent on world domination.
What we think :   Derivative young-adult fantasy lacks any kind of intelligence or coherence, in the face of overwhelming plot arcs it tries to cobble together. Featuring two bland lead actors in Collins and Bower, a story so impossibly complex to follow in a two-hour film, and no explanation at all for any of it, City Of Bones is mired in inept storytelling and half-baked ideas. Avoid it.


 More like City of Bores.

When ubiquitous teen-angst franchise Twilight wrapped up, a vacuum was created that major studios have been trying to fill ever since. Twilight’s cross-platform success, as well as the rising status of soon-t0-be-concluded The Hunger Games trilogy, and the multimillion dollar empires they have created, have made Hollywood desperate to find the Next Big Thing, to capitalize on the popularity of a particular series of books and somehow translate that into a film franchise. The Mortal Instruments (which, I admit to never having heard of until now) is a series of six books in the popular Shadowhunter Chronicles, of which City of Bones is the first entry. It’s a story of werewolves and vampires, Shadowhunters and warlocks, all of whom engage in an eternal war against an evil power hell-bent on world domination. Or something. There’s your prototypical heroine, a square-jawed male love interest, several other male characters (who could all be potential love interests) and your essential elements of mystical, mythical and magical. So I strapped in, pressed “play”, and as with the entire Twlight saga, prepared to have my mind completely and utterly underwhelmed.

Hey, check out my Henna!
Hey, check out my Henna!

Clary Fray (Lily Collins) is a typical American teenage girl. Her best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) harbors a secret unrequited love for her. So when Clary exhibits a vision of a mysterious symbol, she is drawn into the mysterious world of the Shadowhunters. She meets Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), a skilled hunter of supernatural beings – werewolves, demons and vampires – who takes her to The Institute, where she begins to learn a little of her significance in world events. Clary’s mother, Jocelyn (Lena Headey) has been keeping her daughter’s heritage from her, until two men (Kevin Durand and Robert Maillet) kidnap her, forcing Clary to seek further information from Institute resident Hodge (Jared Harris); he informs Clary that she’s the descendent of the megalomaniacal Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who seeks to rule the world with demons. Valentine is hunting a mysterious cup, supposedly one of the three “mortal instruments”, and Clary holds the key to finding it. Together with Simon and Jace, as well as fellow Shadowhunters Alec (Kevin Zegers) and Isabelle (Jemima West), Clary must descend into the City of Bones to find the clues to locating the cup before Valentine does.

I just knew she was up to no good in here!
I just knew she was up to no good in here!

I didn’t expect a lot from City Of Bones, and frankly, I got what I deserved. City Of Bones is the kind of film Lord Of The Rings might have been had Peter Jackson started with The Two Towers. Confusing, inexplicably dull, and featuring two leading character with zero on-screen chemistry or even a reason to be attracted to each other, City Of Bones is remarkably diffuse in both narrative and execution. It looks amazing, yes, and there’s obviously a lot of stuff happening on screen that will make sense to folks who’ve read the books, but – and I’ve mentioned this in reviews of other book-to-film productions – it should not be essential that I have read the book in order to understand the film. City Of Bones seems to be of the belief that everyone’s read the book, so introducing and explaining characters isn’t a requirement of modern cinematic techniques, apparently. Instead of any kind of exposition for the newbies among us to actually understand whatever the hell it is that’s going on, City Of Bones is content to just have scraps – nay, vague tidbits – of information thrown our way in amongst the chases, magic and battles between Shadowhunters and other paranormal creatures. Yes, welcome to City Of Confusion, where everything you see makes no sense whatsoever.

This is my scary face! See? My scary face!
This is my scary face! See? My scary face!

City of Bones stars Lily Collins as Clary (seriously, that’s her name?), a personality-free danger-zone of inestimable mediocrity and substantive idiocy. Consider her this franchise’s Bella Swan. The film opens with Clary about to discover that she’s not actually a human, but a Shadowhunter (whatever that is, because after seeing the film I’m still not entirely sure), meets up with Jace and starts going on adventures around New York. We meet an entire legion of actors all portraying character we’re supposed to have some kind of investment in, only there’s no time to get to know any of them because of the sheer volume of nonsensical narrative exposition taking place – not so much who everyone is, but rather why everyone’s running around and who is Bad and Good and oh God it’s all so damn confusing. There’s an illogical heart to the story – Clary goes from “WTF Babe” to “I Know What I’m Doing Babe” inside three minutes after arriving at The Institute (what The Institute is, is never really elaborated on in the film) – and words of supposed impact and gravitas ring hollow as other characters divert momentum from the story proper. It’s all chop-and-changey, to the point where I just gave up and let it wash over me.

Honestly, I don't know why they didn't just fork out the extra cash for Jim Broadbent.
Honestly, I don’t know why they didn’t just fork out the extra cash for Jim Broadbent.

Lily Collins is backed up on screen by equally blank-slate actor Jamie Campbell Bower, as Jace, her blonde-haired romantic interest and highly skilled Shadowhunter. Naturally, I’m going to equate him to Edward Cullen. An aside: the role of Jace was originally intended for I Am Number Four’s Alex Pettyfer, but was recast with Bower – is it just me, or are both men almost identical in likeness? Jace is moody, angry and sullen, the perfect personality to attract somebody as lifeless as Collins’ Clary; watching these two together is like walking barefoot through a public male lavatory. Uncomfortable and entirely unpleasant. Although, there is a vaguely controversial element to the film – Clary and Jace turn out to be siblings, finding out only a few scenes after a passionate embrace. Yes, it’s Luke & Leia again. Woot! Robert Sheerhan’s third-wheel character, Simon, is quite watchable, although his comedy-schtick does start to wear thin by the end of the film. Sheerhan looks a lot like Jay Baruchel, so I guess he’s got that nerdy, semi-goofy attractiveness about him. Kevin Durand looks like he’s trying to push out a particularly tough turd in playing resident nasty-pasty Pangborn, all gnashing of teeth and tics, while CCH Pounder wastes her talent as a bottom-dwelling witch-turned-demon whom tries to warn Clary about her part in it all. Lena Headey has a blink-and-miss-it role as Clary’s mother. Jonathan Rhys Meyers delivers a malevolant, yet worthless villain, in Valentine – he is watchable, yet his arc amounts to zero.

It's all "spin and twirl" with you lot, innit!
It’s all “spin and twirl” with you lot, innit!

The great thing about Harry Potter (aside from the fact that the characters were well written and empathetic), is that film series allowed time for us to get to know everyone and everything within that world (assuming you hadn’t read the books). City Of Bones does not – it assumes we have knowledge of what werewolves and vampires and whatnot are supposed to be, and just barrels along on some impossibly convoluted quest to find a mysterious cup. Yeah, it’s Indiana Jones and Last Crusade all over again. Hell, even Twilight attempted to explain itself every so often, to keep those crusty muggles from getting confused, but City Of Bones never once gives us anything other than what this self-serving, convoluted and contrived script tries to impart. Not to mention the characters are all boring as batshit, with the exception of Jared Harris’ Hodge, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Valentine, both of whom provide at least some spark to this underwhelming narrative.

I'm sorry, we appear to have dressed for an S&M club!
I’m sorry, we appear to have dressed for an S&M club!

From a production standpoint, City Of Bones goes all-out in terms of design and depth of the world these characters inhabit. The set design, visual effects and post-production work here is all superbly realized – if only the story was worth it. The titular “city of bones” hardly justifies that moniker, being a giant basement beneath a Queens Borough cemetery, although the Institute itself, as well as several other locales, are generally nice to see. The three key production elements: direction, music and cinematography, are all performed by a trio of Nordic gentlemen. Director Harald Zwart, whose main claim to fame has been the Agent Cody Banks movie, as well as the Steve Martin Pink Panther effort, has a visual flourish that I have no doubt would be better served with a decent story, but even with all the money thrown his way he cannot fashion a silk purse out of this script’s sows ear. Icelandic film composer Atli Orvarsson’s score here is appropriately energetic, even though it’s entirely unmemorable; his work on Vantage Point and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters certainly gave him the momentum for this project, but the end result feels flat compared to the screen visuals. And kudos for DP Geir Hartly Andreassen for making this film so bland to look at, because it only serves to accentuate how mild this confusing story really is.

Don't matter what you do, you're screwed.
Don’t matter what you do, you’re screwed.

With its inexcusable lack of informative dialogue to keep newbies up to speed, and an overly complicated plot delivering the most mild of character arcs for the two leads, it’s little wonder City Of Bones bombed at the box office. Lily Collins lacks the personality to headline a major film (hell, her turn in Abduction, alongside Taylor Lautner, proved that), while Jamie Bower glowers and sulks a lot, hoping to provide a new focus for teen-girl lust. There’s no grandeur here, no sense of importance about anything; the film seems torn between being a romantic angst flick, or a straight up vampire/werewolf  hunting shenanigan, and the resulting muddle is impact-free. The Mortal Instruments is confusing, incoherent twaddle that doesn’t deserve your time. What a waste.










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3 thoughts on “Movie Review – Mortal Instruments, The: City Of Bones

  1. Yeah, as much as I love Lily Collins' face, I'll be giving this one a miss haha. If she wants to be taken seriously as an actress, she needs to pick better roles.
    My recent post The Best and Worst of 2013

    1. Lily Collins is lucky she is so attractive, because she's be buggered if she had to rely on her acting talent.

      Of course, I use the term "talent" with a maximum sense of irony….

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