The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, based on the popular young adult supernatural fantasy series by author Cassandra Clare, aims to fill the void left by the likes of Harry Potter and The Twilight Saga. Although I can’t speak for the novels, I was hopeful that this new franchise-starter would rekindle some big screen magic. A promising opening act aside however, my hopes were dashed when the heroine shared a passionate kiss with a male protagonist – in a picturesque garden just as the sprinkler system goes off and rains water majestically down upon them. Oh, and let’s not forget the interminable pop song that chirps in on cue.
I knew from then on that the film had lost me. Up until then, director Harald Zwart (The Karate Kid) had done a good job of usurping my expectations with a surprisingly dark tone and an early dog attack that was equal parts gruesome and disturbing. The audience reaction to this scene was palpable, and I’m sure many parents were reassessing their decision to bring younger kids along.
But I digress; City of Bones follows the familiar plot line that most of these teenage fantasies indulge. Clary (Lily Collins; Mirror Mirror) is a mature teen who witnesses a murder while partying at a nightclub with geeky friend Simon (Robert Sheehan; Season of the Witch). What’s particularly strange though is that nobody else saw what Clary saw. Thereafter, it doesn’t take long for her to encounter mysterious shadowhunter Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower; The Twilight Saga – Breaking Dawn).
Then the mythology lessons start. There’s a lot of exposition here about shadowhunters being descended from angels, a Mortal Cup that’s an important MacGuffin and something about an evil baddie called Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers; From Paris with Love) who appears too late into the film to make an impact. Of course, Clary has a special connection to all of this and so is pulled into a supernatural world existing just behind the façade of the real world.
The problem is that City of Bones buckles under its murky storytelling which is frequently punctuated by cliché story beats, all leading to a final act that feels contrived and doesn’t make half a lick of sense for a few key characters. So much is thrown in that little time is afforded to add any one element sufficient weight, while the burgeoning love triangle between Clary, Simon and Jace is given plenty of groan-inducing attention for tweens. It’s not a total loss as Zwart directs some engaging and fast-paced action scenes, and the gothic production design is pretty impressive – but it does little to overcome the overstuffed, confused and trope-ridden screenplay that lies at the heart of the film’s issues.
Another franchise-starter flop, at least in terms of the screenplay – but hey, it’s better than Twilight!