It’s a tale as old as Young Adult fiction. A young girl is dragged out of her boring life to become the chosen one who will save the world from darkness. She is surrounded by magic on all sides, given incredible powers and hot co-stars—I mean friends—and manages to stop the evil bad guy, all without getting her make-up mussed. That’s the promise of the latest supernatural adventure, Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. For fans of the book series, this film was a chance to see heroine Clary Fray and the Shadowhunters come to life. But how does it rate as a movie? The answer is, sadly, not well.
Mortal Instruments is a book series by Cassandra Clare that follows the story of Clary Fray as she’s dragged into the supernatural war between angelically-powered Shadowhunters and all the forces of darkness in the universe. In City of Bones she discovers her heritage and must venture to find something called the Mortal Cup, a vessel that can create more Shadowhunters. Along the way she meets a handsome demon-killer named Jayce, his Shadowhunter friends Isabelle and Alec, and ponders the depths of the friendzone with her ever-present and confusingly handsome best friend Simon. With the sixth book to be published in 2014, the series has a strong fan following and so made it a perfect candidate for movie adaptation in a post-Twilight America.
To adapt the book to film, it’s clear that director Harald Zwalt (recently of the Karate Kid remake) and screenwriter Jessica Postigo wanted to cut away some of the more fantastic elements of the book series and incorporate hints of the later books’ content into the first film. Gone are Simon’s transformation into a rat (yes, you read that right) and the flying motorcycle scenes over New York City. The film’s been tightened up to be a slick supernatural teen thrill ride, and for the most part it serves to make the movie flow all the better. That tightening, however, cannot rescue the film from its belly-flop into horrible cliché.
The film starts out strong. Clary (Lily Collins) begins the film likable and intriguing, and strips away the unlikable prattling that bogs down a lot of Clary’s narrative in the books. The film spares us from dealing with Clary’s self-involved and often wince-worthy inner monologues, like this one from City of Bones:
“Clary wondered if there were any ugly vampires, or maybe any fat ones. Maybe they didn’t make vampires out of ugly people. Or maybe ugly people just didn’t want to live forever.”
Instead we are treated to a sort of blank slate heroine, who remains charming for most of the film. Sure, she’s a Chosen One character, but that’s the kind of thing you sign on for when watching a movie like this, and Collins’ portrayal makes it easier to swallow.
Equally easy to swallow is the portrayal of Jace Wayland, played by He-Of-The-Mighty-Cheekbones, Jamie Campbell Bower. Bower previously cut his teeth on roles like King Arthur in the short-lived TV series Camelot, as well as Caius in the Twilight Saga, so it’s no surprise that he knows how to play imperious-but-charming well. In fact, Bower takes the often infuriatingly smug Jace and keeps him magnetic, adding the needed touch of hidden warmth to the character that makes him the star of the show. Add to that the fact that Bower knows how to play intensity to the hilt and you have instant on-screen chemical explosions between he and Collins. Similarly, Robert Sheehan’s Simon brings just the best mix of nerdy best friend and secret hero power to offset Bower’s Shadowhunter presence. His puppy eyes at Clary are cute, heartfelt and ultimately perfect for the film.
The adult casting is equally impressive. You have the always brilliant Lena Headey—fresh from being deliciously evil as Cersei on Game of Thrones—playing Clary’s mom Jocelyn, and Tudor’s star Jonathan Rhys Meyers bringing his best emotive roars as the vicious Valentine. Both are sadly present far too little in the movie, with Meyers clocking perhaps less than fifteen or twenty minutes of total on-screen time—a bit sparse for someone supposed to be the film’s terrifying villain. The supporting cast has some phenomenal talent, with the gorgeous Jemima West as Isabelle, CCH Pounder as Dorothea, and Jared Harris as Hodge. I’d even shout out the fabulously underused Aidan Turner as Luke—the supportive best friend of Clary’s mom with a hairy secret—who shines in every scene he’s given.
Along with the cast, the film pulls out all the stops to be absolutely visually breathtaking. The action sequences are slick and intense and some of the visuals are worth the price of admission alone. I’ll point to the whole battle in the vampire-infested Hotel DuMort as an example of fun, tense supernatural action, and the demon battles in the crypt were gorgeous to watch.
Yet for all the good pieces in place, City of Bones crashes hopelessly flat. And it all comes down to one thing: the writing. The script falls into the land of terrible cliché dialogue almost immediately, but holds onto some sort of credibility until nearly halfway into the film. Once Shadowhunter Alec stalks on screen, smolders at Clary and tells her to “Stay away from Jace,” it’s all pretty much downhill from there.
The talented cast emotes their way through some hammy dialogue, interspersed between some beautiful action sequences, all culminating in the most awkward villain twist in YA novel history. It’s difficult to play a potentially implied incest-y plot in a novel, but on film it is downright cringe-inducing to watch as Valentine reveals that he is not only Clary’s father but Jace’s as well. In the books the horror the character’s feel is evident and touching, while on screen it is almost laugh worthy.
And that seems to be the best way to describe the give and take of the movie over the novels. We trade Clary’s often-whiny inner monologues for a less annoying main character, yet sacrifice the emotional nuance of the books for hackneyed dialogue choices in the film. We trade the more fantastical elements of the books for the sake of streamlining the action, yet fall into massive plot holes left behind in the process. For example, Clary’s mom is being kept in the basement the whole time since the film doesn’t want to shift the main battle out of the Institute, and we’re meant to believe this is a more believable plot solution than transporting through a portal to a secret hideaway. Save on sets, lose on believability. That loss of believability kicked the film right from fun into ridiculous, as I couldn’t decide whether the movie was aiming to be hokey or just ended up that way due to poor writing.
The script and production is already being prepared for City of Ashes, the sequel to City of Bones. Yet Mortal Instruments has started off with a clunk rather than a bang, and unless the creators re-inject some strong writing into the next film, I don’t expect much to change. Still, if you’re looking for a fluffy, lightweight, supernatural romp, this film might be your late-summer treat. If you’re a fan of the books, grab your leather jacket and temporary rune tattoos (or real ones if you’ve got ’em) and enjoy a little mindless fun.
Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com.