The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

By on August 31, 2013
Sony Pictures

Pity poor Hollywood. Okay, not that much, but still. These people can’t find a new young adult franchise hit to save their lives. It probably doesn’t help matters that much of the latest crop of films are thinly-veiled rip-offs of other, more successful franchises, like “Harry Potter,” “Twilight” and the most recent hit series, “The Hunger Games.” To be fair, not all of them suck, despite middling box office, i.e. the “Percy Jackson” films, which were nice throwbacks to old-school fantasy flicks, or “Bridge to Terabithia,” which wasn’t really a fantasy film at all, but was unfairly marketed as such.

The latest to throw its hat into the ring is the awkwardly-titled “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” which is just as cumbersome as its title would suggest. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I get that it’s based on a series of books by Cassandra Clare, and that series is called “The Mortal Instruments,” but, boy is that a mouthful. It’s like when they started qualifying the “Twilight” movies with “The Twilight Saga”- uh, yeah, we know. You were thinking we might confuse it with the latest Shakespeare adaptation?

Anyway, the first installment of the popular young adult series is called “City of Bones,” and the other books, of which there are six, all have “City of” in their titles. So, it’s not that complicated, all things considered. But I get it. It’s the first one, and not everyone knows the series, but what’s say we lose the qualifier next time around? Got it? Moving on…

Basically, the story is fairly straightforward, but the way the film handles it is needlessly convoluted, which I can only assume is a direct result of trying to please fans of the books, which I have admittedly not read. Whatever the case, I’ll try to make this as simple as I can.

Clary (Lily Collins, daughter of Phil, but a damn sight easier on the eyes) is a teenager that keeps seeing/drawing the symbol on the ring in “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” everywhere. Why? Well, if you’re going to be bizarre and confusing, you could do a lot worse with a source of inspiration, all things considered. Anyway, as if that weren’t enough, she sees a murder at a local nightclub…and no one else appears to.

Turns out she’s a warrior called a “Shadowhunter,” which is basically a fancy way of saying a slayer, a la “Buffy.” Because of this, she can see things others can’t, like demons and vampires and werewolves and such. However, she hasn’t been told any of this, so most of the movie is spent explaining it to her, all the while she is on the run from a host of baddies, who thinks she has the “Mortal Cup,” which gives the possessor the ability to rule over Shadowhunters and demons alike.

This being a would-be “Twilight,” there’s of course a love triangle, which includes Clary, her BFF Simon (Robert Sheehan) and the mysterious, angelic Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), who serves as a conduit between her “normal” human world and the world of magic or whatever. Guess who she chooses?

Further complicating matters is Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an ex-Shadowhunter who seeks the Mortal Cup by any means necessary, which includes infiltrating the Institute, which is to this series what the library used to be on “Buffy,” only way bigger and hidden from human eyes by magic. There, she gets the skinny on everything from Hodge (Jared Harris), who in the “Buffy” analogy would be the Giles of the series. There’s a lot of back-and-forth, both her mother and Simon get kidnapped, and battles ensue involving vampires and werewolves and such.

That’s about it, but boy is this like someone took everything popular over the last decade or so and threw it into a blender, including the aforementioned “Buffy” and “Twilight,” as well as “Harry Potter,” the “Underworld” series, and even, in the ickiest way imaginable, “Star Wars.” (You’ll see, but don’t say you weren’t warned.)

As such, it can’t help but feel like a bit of a hodgepodge, although, to be fair, the movie has some interesting ideas here and there. Collins is an appealing heroine, and much more pro-active than Bella (aka Kristen Stewart’s character in “Twilight”), though not quite up to the lofty standards of a “Buffy.” As there are plenty more books to go in the series, I can only assume she eventually gets there.

Visually, the movie is stunning, and the soundtrack is pretty solid, including EDM artists like Zedd, Bassnectar, and Seven Lions; indie pop from the likes of He is We, Youngblood Hawke, and Pacific Air; and straight pop from Jessie J, Demi Lovato, and Ariana Grande, who, it must be said, is crazy adorable. Much of it was written expressly for the film, so it doesn’t play like a pure cash grab like many soundtracks these days. The score, by Icelander Atli Örvarsson (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series) is also engaging.

The cast is reasonably likable, even when being gruff, especially Bower (also of “Twilight”) and Jemima West (“The Borgias”), and TV fans will recognize “Mad Men”-vet Harris, “Warehouse 13” star C.C.H. Pounder as a witch and “Game of Thrones”-star Lena Headey as Clary’s mom.

All in all, the film has a decent amount of positives going for it, but my main complaint is that pesky plotline, which is needlessly complicated. I mean, I get that the filmmakers want to be faithful to the source material, but as the people behind “Harry Potter” learned the hard way, sometimes it’s a good thing to streamline a bit. The film could have benefitted enormously from that, and let’s hope that if there is another one, they will make it a point to do so next time around.

As it stands, “City of Bones” is nothing to be ashamed of, but nothing to crow about either. If you like the sort of material I was referencing earlier in the review, then you might like this, but don’t expect it to come anywhere near surpassing the likes of “Harry Potter,” much less  “Buffy.” I’m going to be charitable and give it a B-, though it probably deserves a C+ on the whole. It’s passable fantasy film filler, nothing more, so if that works for you, give it a shot- just don’t expect too much.

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
  • Steph

    The movie skewed quite a bit from the book and that is the reason for the confusion. Even to someone who didnt read the book, this version is horrid in comparison to the paper product that sold millions. So I am not sure why the writer of this artical keeps stating that the production team kept close to the book – NOT so much there paper boy.

    • Mark Trammell

      Actually, I plainly stated that I never read the book, so why would I say that it was really close to it? That would sort of contradict my, you know, not having read it and all. SO, not so fast yourself, comment girl, lol.

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