Katniss Everdeen may be your first phone call when you’re looking for a tough teenage protagonist to use her preternatural skills to upset the status quo (and fall in love with in the process)—but Clary Fray (Lily Collins) wants to be your second. Clary’s at the center of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, based on the best-selling YA book series, and her arena is the streets of New York City, where supernatural forces of good and evil battle in a war that’s practically invisible to mere humans.
Things first turn sour for Clary when her mother Jocelyn (Lena Headey) goes missing, and the initial attempts to search for her finds Clary running afoul of a demonic dog-monster instead. She soon discovers that her mother was a Shadowhunter, or a demon-killing being that’s half-human and half-angel.
Clary’s introduced to the inner circle of the Shadowhunters by the moony-eyed Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), much to the chagrin of her best friend, Simon (Robert Sheehan), who is completely non-magical (or “a mundane” in the parlance of the movie). Together, they all try to rescue Jocelyn while also finding the powerful magic artifact that Jocelyn was protecting—the Mortal Cup, one of the three titular Mortal Instruments—and keeping it away from bad-guy Valentine (a slumming Jonathan Rhys Meyers, perhaps practicing for his turn as Dracula). This is a tall order, as vampires and werewolves—not to mention warlocks and weird, mind-reading silent monks—are also thrown into a world that’s already overstuffed with half-angels and demons.
If it sounds complicated and mythology-heavy, it is. To watch The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones without having read the book is to always feel like you’re missing some crucial piece of information that would make everything click into place and make sense. Unfortunately, a Rosetta Stone for the movie never arrives. Instead, you’re left to guess at everything that goes unsaid.
“This is as far as I go,” Jace tells Clary as they wander through the subterranean City of Bones, a catacomb of expired Shadowhunters, toward a great circular room where a ritual is to take place. Why won’t he go any farther? He doesn’t say. He enters the room, just keeps to the edge of it. Is he not allowed into the center? Is he afraid of the ritual? Does he think it’d make Clary stronger to go on alone? It’s not explained—and, ultimately, not important—which makes you wonder why it was such a big freaking deal for him not to go any farther in the first place.
The entire movie is a string of such head-scratching moments. Characters jump from location to location, and it’s not always clear why they’re headed where they’re headed. (Ostensibly, they’re on the search for the Great MacGuffin, but it feels like the quest takes them in circles.) Some objects and people are invisible to mundanes, until they’re not anymore. Sometimes the Shadowhunters use runes to conjure magic, sometimes they use wands, and sometimes the magic is innate. One character is bitten by a vampire, and it isn’t brought up again for the rest of the movie.
When Clary is taken to the Shadowhunter HQ, she’s shown a greenhouse with magical plants. Why would the plants be different? It’s still New York City, right? The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is proof that rule-making isn’t the same as world-building, and the rules that govern the movie are so thick and arbitrary that it sucks out any of the pleasure of being immersed in a new fantasy environment.
This film can’t even fall back on a trim running time to excuse its choppy, bullet-pointed feel. It drags on for more than two hours, a 130 minute cycle of info-dumping exposition punctuated by action scenes where moderately good-looking effects are obscured by a shaking camera. Director Harald Zwart (The Karate Kid) seems like he’s attempting to give the movie a visual style, but his efforts amount to keeping the film awash in lens flares; it’s enough to make the people who complained about the overuse of lens flares in Star Trek cry.
The lens flares aren’t the only thing that feels borrowed in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Clary is Harry Potter, a young adult awakened to the world of magic powers and parental secrets, only transported to Brooklyn and given a healthy dose of teenage angst. (The Potter connection makes sense, since Cassandra Clare, the author of the Mortal Instruments books, first made a name for herself in the world of Harry Potter fan fiction.) The love triangle she enters into—since there’s always a love triangle between a girl, a brooding magical being, and a dependable nerd, right?—is straight out of Twilight, with the rest of the film filling in the requisite vampire/werewolf animosity. There’s a little Star Wars thrown into the mix (you’ll know when you get there), and even the score sounds dangerously close to John Williams’ Jurassic Park theme at one point.
In short, there’s nothing about City of Bones that stands out to recommend it over any of the other YA-inspired fantasy adaptations out there. The plot is muddy, the characters are generic—it seems the movie had the last draft pick when it came to casting the bland leading men of young adult romances—and even the New York City landscape seems reduced to a couple of shots of its most famous landmarks, like the Brooklyn Bridge. (Never mind the fact that everyone that Clary talks to, with the exception of Simon, has a British accent. Moving the action to London would have made no difference.)
Not that it isn’t trying to carve out its own identity. The two-disc, Blu-Ray release of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones really, really wants you to be absorbed in that world. It has features that explore all the facets of its creation. The most helpful is the “Interactive Lineage Tracker,” which helps sorts out the different layers of classifications of supernatural beings. But there are also extensive interviews with the cast, producers, and writers that delve into everything from the look of the stitches on the Silent Monk lips to the different styles of fighting created for each of the different characters. The complexity of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones universe invites obsessing over that level of detail, but unfortunately there are no rewards in doing so.