A film review by Craig J. Koban December 20, 2013  



2013, PG-13, 130 mins.


Lily Collins as Clary Fray  /  Jamie Campbell Bower as Jace Wayland  /  Kevin Zegers as Alec Lightwood  /  Jemima West as Isabelle Lightwood  /  Robert Sheehan as Simon Lewis  /  Jared Harris as Hodge Starkweather  /  Lena Headey as Jocelyn Fray  /  Aidan Turner as Luke Garroway  /  Godfrey Gao as Magnus Bane

Directed by Harald Zwart  /  Written by I. Marlen King and Jessica Postigo  /  Based on the book by Cassandra Clare 

One of the more damning side effects that the TWILIGHT films have had on the movie industry as of late has been the relative smorgasbord of imitators, which is not a good sign seeing as the product that these copycats are borrowing from was not that great to begin with.  Recent examples - like the egregiously awful THE HOST and the not-so terrible, but mostly tedious BEAUTIFUL CREATURES - are proof positive of this very assertion.  Now comes THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES, yet another (sigh) young adult themed fantasy film where yet another teen girl finds herself wrapped up within a love triangle while battling supernatural forces beyond normal human comprehension.  The only thing that’s beyond my comprehension is why this film is so utterly and instantly forgettable after watching it. 

THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES is based on one of the books in a six book series by author Cassandra Clare, and despite the fact that I have never exposed myself to this literary world, within a relatively short period of time watching the film adaptation you gain a startlingly immediate impression of how Clare’s story merrily cherry picks from the already lackluster core elements of TWILIGHT.  Teen-centered romance and angst?  Check.  Love triangle?  Check.  Supernatural creatures galore?  Check?  Flimsily handled mythology?  Check.  Shoddy and half-hearted CG visual effects?  Check.  Unintentionally hammy and cornball dialogue that will elicit many groans by adult viewers in the audience?  Check.  An unrelenting feeling of narrative déjà vu and a been-there, done-that vibe?  Make that a resounding double check. 

The film stars Lily Collins (MIRROR, MIRROR) as Clary Fray, an ordinary New York teenager that slowly discovers that she is able to see cryptic symbols that are invisible to all other human beings (who are labeled as “Mundanes" by those with her gifts).  Of course, this leads to many scenes of social awkwardness, especially when her mundane BFF, Simon (Robert Sheehan) can’t seem to understand what Clary is actually seeing.  It is revealed that Clary’s mother (Lena Headey, a headstrong and tough minded actress that’s frankly too good for this material) is one of the famed “Shadowhunters”, or a race of beings that are the very last thing that comes between humanity and shape-shifting demons that want nothing more than to eradicate our kind.  Clary’s momma is kidnapped early on – which is not a ringing endorsement of her gifts as a supreme shadowhunter – by a gang of ravenous demonic baddies, leaving Clary teary-eyed and desperate to find out where she was taken. 



Well, before you can scream TWILIGHT, Clary is befriended by a rather hunky shadowhunter named Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower, an actual TWILIGHT cast alumni), who slowly, but surely, introduces her to the world of shadowhunting.  Obviously, Jace fulfills the plot’s painfully orchestrated necessity of having a love triangle, which leads to Clary tormented as to whom she really has affections for: the supernaturally dreamy Jace or the down-to-earth an adorable Simon.  Soon, Jace and Clary are joined by other shadowhunters in their quest to find Clary’s mother, but then the screenplay throws in vampires and werewolves (no, seriously) into its already confusing mythology, alongside a quest for a hidden relic called the “Mortal Cup.”  Jonathan Rhys Meyers shows up as a powerful shadowhunter that wants to use Clary’s suppressed shadowhunter skills for his own means.  Hell, even MAD MEN’S Jared Harris shows up.  Lots of computer augmented battles ensue…lustful glances and kisses are exchanged…yadda, yadda. 

The overall plot of THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS is almost unintelligible at times and does a relatively mediocre job of establishing the particulars of its occult universe and then does an even poorer job of further developing it.  The film contains a truckload of exposition early on that really bogs the narrative momentum down, not to mention that it contains some really, really convenient plot concepts (like, for example, that Clary really suffers from shadowhunter amnesia in the sense that her knowledge of her supernatural origins and powers have been suppressed).  Beyond that, there’s just no ignoring the fact that, as mentioned, THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS just feels like a retooled TWILIGHT film right down to many fundamental elements.  The only thing that it lacks that TWILIGHT had was the stilted line readings of Robert Pattinson and the aggressively sullen pouting of Kristin Stewart.  If anything, THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS is a bit more finely acted than its young adult fantasy cinematic antecedents. 

Yet, the central female character of Clary never fully emerges as a worthwhile hero deserving of our attention and rooting interest.  The film superficially seems to be aiming for some rowdy girl power posturing, but in the end Clary seems less like a fiercely independent female warrior than she does just a sheepishly bewildered gal that’s torn between two men vying for influence in her life.  The lack of character development in the film is only exacerbated by the casting of Lilly Collins as Clary; she has a porcelain beauty and endlessly photogenic façade, but Collins rarely feels like an authentic presence in the film.  Clary is more or less a prop at the service of the film’s hackneyed melodrama and deeply convoluted storytelling.  By the end of the film, you feel like poor Clary has not made any tangible decisions based on her own accord; she’s more of a victim of the screenplay’s overt manipulations.  I like my heroes – male or female – a bit more headstrong than what’s presented here. 

Perhaps the most unpardonable sin of THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS is that, frankly, I just didn’t care about anyone or anything in the film.  Clearly, fantasy flicks like this are engineered to easily placate a much younger demographic than me, which only reinforces my overall lack of an emotional investment with the material.  Yet, I think that great young adult fiction – like, say, the recently released THE HUNGER GAMES; CATCHING FIRE – appeases both young and old viewers alike by immersing us deep within its intriguing story and well articulated characters and themes.  Films like it had ample imagination and intelligence of design, elements that are sorely lacking in TWILIGHT rip-offs like THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS, a work that seems more interested in rushing out of the gate for a release date than it does with ensuring that there is a respectable product worthy of our viewing.  THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS is not a soul-suckingly wretched film, per se, but it is a wasteful and shamefully unimaginative one.  To take a page our of the shadowhunter vernacular, it's really mundane stuff. 

  H O M E