Envisioning a disaster along the lines of Beautiful Creatures, I went into The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, a supernatural teen romance, with very low expectations. To an extent, I was right to do so. Like so many movies adapted from other sources, The Mortal Instruments will in all likelihood resonate most strongly with those intimately familiar with the original novel by Cassandra Clare; for the uninitiated, like me, it will come off as less straightforward than it should have been. Explanations are provided, but in very general or enigmatic ways. No matter what we in the audience hear the characters say, no matter what narrative piece of the puzzle falls into place, it always seems as if vital details are missing. Maybe they were left on the cutting room floor, or maybe they didn’t make the transition from page to screen in the first place.
Having said all that, the film is a great deal better than Beautiful Creatures, not to the extent that it’s worth recommending but definitely to the point that it exceeded some of my expectations. The plot, while indisputably convoluted, is nevertheless easier to follow, and the characters are not only more interesting but also have more of a narrative purpose. Select scenes are triumphs of art direction, set decoration, and lighting, and it includes (rather indirectly, I’m compelled to admit) all the supernatural elements we’ve come to expect from stories like this, including vampires, werewolves, demons, and witches. The only exceptions are zombies, which, in a quietly amusing scene, are said to not exist in real life. And let it be noted that this is one of the only cinematic tween romances to include a gay character – albeit in a very minor subplot.
The central character is a New York City teenage girl named Clary (Lily Collins). A talented sketch artist living in an apartment with her mother, a painter named Jocelyn (Lena Headey), Clary unconsciously begins making drawings of a diamond-like symbol. When she becomes aware of what she’s doing, she has no understanding of what the symbol represents. She also begins seeing people no one else can see, most notably a warrior-like young man who appears to be a murderer with a sword. After her mother is kidnapped, Clary learns that she’s not entirely human. She has, in fact, inherited special powers from her mother, who is a Shadowhunter – that is, a supernatural hunter trained to protect humanity by slaying evil demonic forces. The warrior she assumed was a murderer is himself a Shadowhunter. His name is Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower), and like all Shadowhunters, tattoos adorn his body.
The plot involves Clary trying to determine the whereabouts of her mother. This involves a series of scenes, character interactions, and subplots in which hitherto unknown magical forces reveal themselves to both her and the audience. The most important is a vaguely biblical search for a hidden chalice, one that bestows angelic powers to those who drink from it. This chalice, we learn, is one of three Mortal Instruments given as divine gifts. For now, the other two Instruments are a mystery. It’s also established that a man named Valentine, a corrupted Shadowhunter (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), is searching for the chalice and wants to use it for his own diabolical purposes. The key to finding its location is Clary, even though she doesn’t yet know it. There is, in fact, a great deal she doesn’t know, although it’s explained that, for her own protection, many of her memories have magically been repressed.
We go to these films fully expecting a romance to blossom, and so one does between Clary and Jace, the latter a quasi-goth kid with a chip on his shoulder and a bad boy mystique. The other boy in Clary’s life is her best friend, Simon (Robert Sheehan), whose nerdy build – enhanced by a pair of thickly framed glasses, no less – doesn’t prevent him from exuding an irresistible bookish charm. He even has a likeable sense of humor, as evidenced by a surprisingly funny reference to Ghostbusters. Naturally, he harbors a secret love for Clary and believes himself better suited for her than Jace. Incidentally, Simon gains the ability to see Jace by means not entirely clear to me. It’s like a light switch; Jace is invisible to Simon one moment then visible the next. If an explanation for this is given, I’m sorry to say that it went completely over my head.
There are certain scenes that come off as unintentionally funny. Why, for example, must Clary visit a nightclub dressed like a tramp? As one character astutely observes, “She looks like someone who would leave her number on a bathroom wall.” Why must the owner of the club, a gay warlock adorned with eyeliner, provide both Clary and the audience with expository information while not wearing any pants? And then there’s a plot twist near the end, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Star Wars saga – and by now, that’s just about everyone. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is very flawed and ultimately doesn’t quite work, but unlike Beautiful Creatures, I could actually see the potential within. Certain plot points are left unresolved, presumably for a sequel; I can only hope that, should that sequel ever be made, that potential will be lived up to.
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