Published Aug 21, 2013Unlike The Hunger Games, another wildly popular young adult book series, The Mortal Instruments isn't quite as easily defined and plot-driven. Cassandra Clare's universe, although predictable, is more escapist and rooted in a complex mythology that's less convoluted to explain on page than film. There's a similarity in the basic outline of female protagonist Clary (Lily Collins), learning of a greater destiny and having to fight her way through obstacles while simultaneously exploring the landscape of nascent, idealized romance.
City of Bones, however, has centuries of history and a litany of characters, whether vampires, werewolves, witches or shadowhunters, all with their own motivations, histories and rationales, living amidst humans but outside of our visual comprehension. Clary, whose character-shaping lack of self-confidence and reluctant acceptance of mediocrity are all but lost in the film adaptation, learns promptly that she can see people and things that her friends cannot.
Her mother, Jocelyn (Lena Headey), knows more than she lets on, panicking when she catches her daughter scrawling an archaic symbol all over notepads unconsciously, knowing she'll have to have "the talk" (a metaphor that can be interpreted however you like) sooner rather than later.
As set up in Harald Zwart's absurdly dry and expository adaptation of Clare's novel, there's little character nuance or artistic interpretation of this text. Clary waxes vaguely rebellious, speaking her motivations rather than acting or emoting them, going to a club with her caricature of a best friend, Simon (Robert Sheehan), who is (not so) secretly in love with her, where she sees Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) slaughter some demons amidst a writhing array of goth poseurs.
Her reaction — the fact that she can see any of this — sends up a flare amidst the underground monster community, leading to the one solid set piece of the film, where two henchman and a shapeshifting demon dog fight, quite graphically, with Jocelyn, looking for a mystical cup. It's here that Zwart demonstrates a bit of visual acuity, handling PG-13 violence with surprising intensity, which is maintained quite well throughout the many battles with legions of vampires and a dark shadowhunter (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) that may, or may not be, Clary's missing father.
Unfortunately, when the elaborate set pieces and genuinely creepy monster Rottweilers aren't kicking the crap out of our bland protagonist and her new gang of leather-clad whiners, the need to explain the many plot points — most of which couldn't be noted in a review — makes the pacing and the ability to engage in this alternate universe a bit of a slog. Worse is that the affected romance between Clary and Jase — one that's given tepid conflict by the unwanted advances of Simon, who likes Clary, and fellow shadowhunter Alec (Kevin Zegers), who likes Jase — is more laughable than intense, culminating in some lingering, empty glances and an inopportune make-out session in a greenhouse.
By the end, after compounding rules and magical aspects are explained ad nauseum, the twee melodrama in the middle of it all becomes a bit of a joke. Since none of the characters have any established depth, being limited to reciting information to further the story, it's difficult to engage in their plight. But, the handling of gender and sexuality, wherein no one cares about orientation or gender performance — men, women, gays and monsters are all fluid and interchangeable, presented without the bat of an eyelash — is quite progressive and fascinating for its deliberate evasion of making an issue out of the obvious.
It's possible that Zwart might fare better with City of Ashes, if only because the basic foundations of the universe have been laid in this very milquetoast tween romance fantasy. However, considering his background making Agent Cody Banks and The Karate Kid, it's more likely he'll simply reiterate a goofy, inconsistent tone that relies on visual effects to make the battles at least moderately epic. (eOne)