The people behind The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones must have thought they had a major hit on their hands. While it’s common for sequels to be put into development before the first movie is released (in Hollywood terms, paying a screenwriter for a first draft of a script is comparatively cheap), but in this case they’d already started casting the likes of Sigourney Weaver in City Of Ashes. However when City Of Bones only grossed $90 million around the world, the likelihood of adaptations of Cassandra Clare’s other books seemed far less likely.
The movie follows Clary Fray (Lily Collins), who thinks she’s a normal teenager but soon discovers she isn’t when she witnesses a murder in a crowded club that apparently nobody else can see. She then returns home to discover her mother has disappeared and some sort of strange dog-monster is in the apartment. She learns that she’s somehow connected to Shadowcasters, who are in an endless battle with the demonic forces of evil.
Clary ends up entering the world of Shadowcasters Jace (Jamie Campbell Bowers), Isabelle (Jemima West) and Alec (Kevin Zegers), although for some reason the latter doesn’t want her around at all. She learns that the Shadowcasters are a dying breed due to the disappearance of a cup that can create new ones. Finding that vessel may be the only way to get her mother back, although doing so may also cause the villainous Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) to come out of hiding.
There’s a lot going on in The Mortal Instruments, but it’s all a bit of a hodgepodge and doesn’t really work. As many others have noted, the plot is a mishmash of ideas liberally borrowed from everything from Harry Potter to Star Wars, along with appearances from just about every sort of stock fantasy creature. That isn’t intrinsically disastrous, but the way they’re handled in the movie is so artless that everything lands with a thud and is more likely to result in incredulity than amazement.
It’s not really the fault of Cassandra Clare’s stories – after all, few plots are wholly original – but more to do with the clunky script and Harald Zwart’s confused direction. The first ninety minutes are just a mess. About half of it is completely unnecessary and could have been removed without making any difference to the film at all. That means that setting up what is actually a pretty complex mythology has to be crammed in during the remaining time. It results in confusion, lots of very awkward exposition (some of which is almost stunning in how badly it’s handled) and such a rush through important plot points and ideas that it’s difficult to care what’s going on.
It’s likely that for most viewers there will be a point in the film where they’ll simply go, ‘WTF?’, and that will be the moment where they’ll give up on the movie. And there are plenty of moments it could be, from a romantic scene that’s likely to illicit guffaws, to the movie’s use of magical runes (which could have been quite cool if they’d set it up properly, but instead comes across as more than a little dumb).
What’s particularly annoying about this is that Mortal Instruments actually gives us some LGBT interest in a young adult movie. After the resolutely straight worlds of things such as Twilight and Hunger Games, this film doesn’t shy away from the fact one of the characters is gay. While we only get the beginning of Alec’s story here (which is developed much further in the sequel books), the film doesn’t attempt to desexualise him or simply hint at his sexuality while refusing to state it. However even this is handled via clumsy exposition and unrealistic dialogue, and now it’s unlikely we’ll get to see what happens to him next.
What’s annoying about that is that the final 30 minutes are actually pretty good. It’s almost like a different screenwriter and director were suddenly drafted in, who know how to tell a story and put an action sequence together. Suddenly it’s a movie with a lot to offer and which suggests this is a story where it would be worth finding out what happens next.
It’s bizarre, because while overall The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones isn’t a very good film at all, I really would quite like to see City Of Ashes – as long as that film can be like the final half hour of the first film all the way through.
Overall Verdict: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is three-quarters an artless mess, which comes across as a confusing morass of things you’ve seen done better before. It’s only the end that works, but it’s not enough either to save the movie or ensure we’ll get a better sequel.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac