The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013)
★ / ★★★★

After attending a bad poetry session with Simon (Robert Sheehan), Clary (Lily Collins) notices a mysterious symbol on a sign hanging above a nightclub—one that her hand draws when her mind is focusing on something else. Hoping to get answers, she goes inside. She witnesses a man get murdered. However, no one else saw what she claims to have occurred. At home, Clary’s mother, Jocelyn (Lena Headey), begins to worry because she is no longer able to repress her daughter’s increasing power.

“The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” is yet another tired adaptation of a young adult book. Though fantastical elements are present, from witches and so-called Shadow Hunters to vampires and werewolves, there is a dearth of magic in the screenplay by Jessica Postigo and so the experience, for the most part, is one to be endured rather than to be marveled. It is crippled on two accounts: the love triangle and the conflict between good and evil. There is no escape. When it is not focused on one, it is focused on the other.

The would-be exciting action sequences get progressively worse. I enjoyed the twenty minutes or so especially the part when Clary rushes home to discover that her mother is missing… and that something else is waiting for her. But once the fantasy elements have been introduced, the action becomes muddled and confusing. The battles always occur in groups so everyone is moving at once. The film has a gothic look and feel to it so it is often dark. It is near impossible to make sense of everything is happening when there is a fight. Furthermore, it does not provide space—the camera is fond of shots above the waist or the characters within arm’s length of each other—and time to appreciate the craft and choreography put into these scenes.

So the plot deals with fantasy but must the romance be fantastic, too? In other words, there is a lack of realism in how Clary and Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), a Shadow Hunter like Clary’s mother, fall for one another. Instead of giving the two a necessary building of chemistry, there seems to have been a switch that was flipped once it is convenient to the plot. It comes out nowhere that when the lovebirds begin to get a little closer, all I could think about was the mission: Shouldn’t they be looking for Jocelyn?

Collins is a bit bland as a heroine, but one casting choice I liked is Bower. The contrast works for him. He looks like a villain with those high cheekbones and piercing eyes but his character has a nice mix of kindness and coldness—like he can easily turn against someone if the person fails to do right by him. Clary pales in comparison and when there is an argument about her being nothing but liability, given that she is not as battle-savvy as the rest, I found myself agreeing with them instead of wanting main character to prove them wrong. A fatal flaw is that the screenplay fails to prove to us why Clary is special outside of her powers. For example, Harry Potter is interesting not because he can do magic—the supporting characters can summon spells, too—but because we get a taste of his humanity through being an underdog despite his abilities. There is an important difference and it makes or breaks a potential franchise.

Directed by Harald Zwart, “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” is a lot like watching an hourglass: you know that time is passing by due to the build-up of sand but it is almost maddening because you see that the process is occurring too slowly. Given its quality, there is no reason for this film to exist let alone run for over two hours.

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