Despite some handsome production values, and a game cast doing their best, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that “The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones” is little more than derivative, uninspired fan fiction crammed with so much supernatural and romantic wish fulfilment that at times I felt I was watching ‘Fifty Shades Of Octarine’.
When New York City teenager Clary (Lily Collins) begins seeing a strange symbol everywhere, it worries her mother (Lena Headey) and her mother’s friend (Aidan Turner). Things get stranger when Clary and her faithful friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) visit a nightclub where Clary, and only Clary, sees Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower) kill someone. When her mother goes missing and her home is then attacked by a demon, Clary learns that she is actually descended from Shadowhunters, supernatural beings who live amongst the humans and that there is a whole other world invisible to ‘mundane’ eyes. An evil ex-Shadowhunter named Valentine Morgenstern (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is seeking The Mortal Cup, one of the three Mortal Instruments, in order to take control of both the demons and the Shadowhunters and rule the Nephilim world.
It’s hard to know where to begin with this movie because whichever way you look at it, it’s a pale imitation of other, better works. It borrow shamelessly from Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere”, liberally piling on elements of “Twilight”, “Underworld”, “Harry Potter”, “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and, well, nearly every successful fantasy work of the past twenty years while at the same time ticking off all the boxes on the young adult cliché list: special/ ‘chosen one’ heroine unaware of their heritage? Check. Faithful sidekick with unrequited love for heroine? Check. Ill-defined magical artefact entrusted to heroine’s family? Check. Familial connection to main villain? Check. Secret watchful guardian in the form of neighbour or friend? Check and check.
Sometimes you can get away with having so many unoriginal elements if you manage to combine them into something fresh and interesting but this movie manages to pull off the trick of actually being less than the sum of its parts. The pacing is terrible and the movie meanders through its bloated two hours plus running time, aimlessly stumbling from one set piece to another, occasionally grinding to a halt to leadenly dump exposition in overwritten and overwrought dialogue scenes.
Lily Collins is decent enough as the lead but has zero chemistry with Jamie Campbell Bower, who nears Hayden Christensen levels of awfulness in this. A great supporting cast is drained of any life by flat direction and a clumsy script, frittering away the talents of Lena Headley, Aiden Turner, Jared Harris and especially the usually fantastic Robert Sheehan who seems unable to summon even a shadow of the vibrant, unpredictable edginess he brought to “Misfits”.
I haven’t read any of the books in the series so I can’t really comment on whether the film adaptation does the books a great disservice, and it may be that the series improves as it progresses and reveals more of its themes and ambition. As a film, it feels tired and desperate, throwing more fantasy tropes into the over-egged mixture whenever it needs something to happen: demons, vampires, werewolves; oh my. Some of the word building is intriguing, such as the runes used to cast spells and summon powers and the ability to hide objects within two dimensional images but, ironically, the concepts themselves feel painted on as an afterthought to the insipid and forced teenage romance.
Cluttered, inept, wasteful and dull, there’s some potential here and a good cast but both are wasted by a terrible, leaden script and lifeless by-the-numbers direction from Harald Zwart. In advance of its release it was labelled the new “Twilight”. In that, at least, it lives up to the promise, but that’s not a compliment.