There is a dialogue exchange early on that foreshadows these problems. The heroine Clary (Lily Collins) discovers that her mother is a “shadow walker,” part of an elite group of people assigned to fight and kill demons, and is bewildered by the prospect that she, too, will follow in those footsteps. But she doesn’t remember any piece of her childhood where something might have been amiss, to which another character suggests her memory was wiped clean by her mom. Her retort: “I don’t remember anything she would want me to forget.” See the roundabout way it reveals nothing? The whole movie plays like that. It is a two hour exercise of circular vagueness in which a lot is spoken but little is said, bringing audiences no closer to understanding what the general attempt is here other than flashy camera edits used to create the illusion of a lot of things going on.
Bear with me as I attempt to explain what I know of the story. Clary is a young girl living the traditional life in the city, but has an unconscious impulse to sketch the same symbol over and over on random scratch paper (if you’ve seen the promo images, you know what I am referring to: it looks like a rune with devil horns). She knows nothing of what it means, but her mother’s quick dismissal of it indicates it signifies something great. But she, alas, isn’t privy to the details until far too late: one night at a club, Clary sees someone being murdered and screams, which alarms the perpetrators because no one else but her can actually see them.
The next day, one of them named Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) follows her to the coffee shop and they exchange outburst in the back alley. “What does this symbol mean!?” she demands. “Why can I see you and no one else can?” He veers off on vague tangents that lead to one key observation: “You’re not a mundane.” What is a mundane, exactly? Think of the Muggles from the Harry Potter universe: they are human beings without that magic gene that allows them to enroll in places like Hogwarts. Unfortunately for the characters in “The Mortal Instruments,” being more than a mundane means you are sentenced to an existence that involves tracking down demonic entities and slaying them with fancy weapons that radiate a blue hue. The young adult genre prides itself on telling stories that allow characters from normal walks of life to be swept into tales of adventurous peril, but here she seems more like a kid caught up in a runway show of fashion models pretending to be actors. Scarcely a scene goes by, in fact, when one of the players (good guy or otherwise) is not viewed through a lens that accentuates cleavage or open shirts revealing abdominal definition.
The “City of Bones” referenced in the title, I guess, is kind of a mortuary of sorts for the remains of dead shadow hunters, which the movie displays in one brief scene that requires Clary to undergo some kind of total recall of her missing memories. The beings who preside over this underground mausoleum are called “silent brothers” and have stitched mouths and empty eye sockets but still manage to somehow see their surroundings and speak in low rumbles. But they provide Clary with various fragments of missing memories, which allows her to help propel the story forward. Her mother has gone missing because she snatched and hid an artifact from her colleagues years before called the Mortal Cup, and a sect of rebellious hunters wants it back. The cup, I guess, gives the hunters their strength and allows them to replicate, but a vindictive hunter named Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) has darker intentions for it involving some sort of blood merger between demons and his own kind.
This is a premise that might work in the hands of more eager filmmakers, but here it is reduced to a collection of fragmented scenes designed to mystify and infuriate. Zwart’s direction is indicative of someone who is in over his head, and he photographs the content more like a cameraman tossing around the equipment in a fit of rage. But the primary problems are in the screenplay, which plays like a paste job from textbook examples of clichés to avoid in Screenwriting 101. Consider some of the choices in the things these characters shout at each other. “Demons don’t die easily!” “You killed a cop!” “They weren’t real cops!” (The latter is repeated three times in sequence). One has to wonder what the writer of the original books thinks of all of these choices in outbursts, assuming she could stop laughing long enough to convey those feelings.
Those are not even the biggest offenses. Consider the lapses in logic contained in two critical sequences, and think for a moment if you would allow yourself to not ask vital questions on the set before moving on. In the first, Jace explains to Clary that the great composer Johan Sebastian Bach was also a shadow hunter (!), and that a series of complicated piano riffs he created are actually a ruse to lure demons out of hiding – this is followed by a scene in which he plays the same riff on a piano and gets an agitated response from someone in the room, and Clary pays no heed to the warning so that she can reveal the whereabouts of the Mortal Cup. A great follow-up scene would have contained Jace chastising her for failing to remember that crucial factoid from the prior scene, but that requires a character to be smart enough to realize it in the first place, I suppose.
Later still, when the young shadow hunter learns that she can create runes out of thin air that have differing spell effects than those scribbled in the shadow hunter textbooks, she makes one on the spot that freezes demons in place long enough for she and a group of comrades to move from one corridor to the next without being attacked. Obvious question: why didn’t anyone just slaughter the frozen demons before moving on? Why keep going and then act all surprised when they regain their movement and then try to ambush everyone from behind? The teenagers at the viewing I attended picked up instantly on this oversight, suggesting that they may have been better choices at writing a script. Those sentiments are topped even later in the film when another random rune tattoo is crafted that allows her to move furniture and clean an apartment with just the wave of a forearm. Suggestion for the sequel: have her create another that allows her to escape this story and find refuge in a more intelligent one.
“The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” is probably as well-intentioned a teenage fantasy as the “Twilight” films, but it is such a lethargic mess that it inspires no desire in us to understand the material beyond just a simple outline. This wasn’t true of other famous movie franchises like “Harry Potter,” which had its own struggles early on but left behind trickles of intrigue that encouraged one to explore the story deeper, even if it involved descending into J.K. Rowling’s writing. That becomes kind of a necessity in an ongoing series of stories when you invite viewers in that have no exposure to the source. Other obligatory inclusions, of course, are intriguing storytelling, well-drawn characters and a conflict that builds a sense of tension – all of which stand on their own. Now comes the first movie of its kind to opt out of that responsibility, a picture so lacking in ambition and energy that you can almost imagine everyone involved making key decisions from the comfort of a Barcalounger.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Action/Fantasy (US); 2013; Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of fantasy violence and action, and some suggestive content; Running Time: 130 Minutes
Lily Collins: Clary
Jamie Campbell Bower: Jace
Kevin Zegers: Alec
Jemima West: Isabelle
Robert Sheehan: Simon
Produced by Don Carmody, Hartley Gorenstein, Robert Kulzer, Michael Lynne, Martin Moszkowicz, Dylan Sellers, Robert Shaye and Veslemøy Ruud Zwart; Directed by Harald Zwart; Written by Jessica Prostigo; based on the novel by Cassandra Claire