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“THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES” (Movie Review)

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THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES is a movie that attempts to make voracious vampires and tentacle-sprouting demons safe for tween audiences. Which would be fine, if it had more to offer grown-ups, or indeed those who aren’t already fans of the book series whose first installment it is based on.

Speaking as one who’s never read Cassandra Clare’s young-adult saga, it comes as no surprise, based on the film’s content, that the author got started with Harry Potter fan fiction. THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES plays very much like a gender switch on the boy wizard, with a heavy dose of the “shipping” so popular among the fanfic crowd. The central romance between a human girl and a supernaturally handsome guy also calls TWILIGHT to mind, though fortunately, CITY OF BONES stars Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower evince a little more personality and chemistry than Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. In addition, director Harald Zwart and screenwriter Jessica Postigo Paquette have the good sense to punctuate the melodrama with occasional humor, some of it self-mocking. “Is this the part where you start tearing off your shirt to bind my wounds?” Collins’ Clary Fray asks Bower’s Jace after getting out of a scrape.

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As the film opens, Clary is an apparently ordinary teenager living in a very Canadian-looking section of Brooklyn who has started to see (in her cappucino foam, among other places) and draw a mysterious symbol, cuing much concern from her mother Jocelyn (Lena Headey, underused). Before Jocelyn can reveal the secret she should have told Clary before, the girl witnesses the slaying of a demon in human form in a Manhattan nightclub (one that apparently has an open-door policy for under-18s), leading Clary to discover that she is descended from a race of Shadowhunters, part-angel beings devoted to fighting evil on Earth. After Jocelyn is abducted by a couple of nasty henchmen (familiar character actors Kevin Durand and Robert Maillet) and Clary survives an attack in her apartment by a nifty dog-octopus hybrid monster, Jace decides it’s time Clary join the Shadowhunters, over the objections of his best pal Alec (Kevin Zegers). Clary’s platonic-but-secretly-smitten best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) is allowed to tag along, for comic relief, to be put in jeopardy and to form the third side of a love triangle between Clary and Jace.

There’s more to the story—a lot more, incorporating a crucial artifact called The Mortal Cup; a stronghold called The Institute, overseen by Shadowhunter leader Hodge (Jared Harris); an alternate dimension called Downworld; the outrageous “high warlock of Brooklyn” (model-turned-actor Godfrey Gao); Jocelyn’s boyfriend Luke (Aidan Turner), who’s got a lycanthropic secret; the sorceress who lives downstairs from Clary and Jocelyn (CCH Pounder); a villain named Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers); and enough revelations about parentage and heritage to stock a trilogy of STAR WARS films. Perhaps this stuff flowed smoother on the page, but in this two-hour-and-change feature it’s explicated in torrents of exposition that render THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS’ acronym extremely appropriate. More than once, Clary protests about how confused she is, and it’s hard not to relate, particularly during a climax that goes on forever, rewriting the rules and motivations to the point that it’s impossible to stay engaged with it.

The rush to get from one action setpiece or explanatory scene to the next prevents CITY OF BONES from generating any true sense of awe or wonder, and for every good joke (a one-liner about zombies, a sight gag involving a portrait of Bach), there’s a moment where the film tips over into unintentional humor, particularly a bit involving Jace’s ring. The film does look great thanks to Geir Hartly Andreassen’s lush cinematography (it’s nice to see a modern dark fantasy that hasn’t had the colors leached out) and Francois Seguin’s production design, though when the locking mechanism on the Institute’s doors proves cooler than anything the characters get up to inside it, there’s something wrong. Genre fans may get a brief kick out of the monsters, also including fierce fire-and-brimstone creatures (which nonetheless prove strangely vulnerable to a flamethrower), but probably not enough of one to want to sit through all the lovey-dovey between Clary and Jace, most notably a clinch in a rooftop garden equipped with a Freudian sprinkler system.

Then there’s the simple fact that anyone inclined to catch THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES has undoubtedly seen much of it before, in many cases done better (there are echoes of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER as well). It’s ironic that in fantasy, the genre with the most boundless opportunities for imagination and creativity, so much of the output in recent years should look and play the same.

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor, the position he holds to this day while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews.
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