Along with the recent surge of superhero movies, we seem to have had a spate of films based on fantasy/dystopian future science fiction series oriented toward teenagers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, although the results, as might be imagined, are variable. They’re not the sort of things I pay attention to normally, but Mortal Instruments: City of Bones had a very large display at my second-favorite theater, so when it opened at my favorite theater, I went to see it.
Clary Fray (Lily Collins) lives with her mother Jocelyn (Lena Headey) in New York. Jocelyn is an artist with, as we learn, some unusual abilities. And it seem that Clary has some unusual characteristics, as well — for example, she’s been drawing, repeatedly and quite unconsciously, a particular symbol, which is cause for some concern on Jocelyn’s part – Jocelyn knows what it means. And then, when out on her birthday with her best friend, Simon (Robert Sheehan) to a poetry reading, she insists that they stop at a particular club because the same symbol is on the sign — except that no one else can see it. Once inside, she witnesses a murder that no one else sees – not even Simon. Then she comes home one day to discover the apartment trashed and her mother missing, at which point she is attacked by a pair of thugs and rescued in the nick of time by – the man who committed the murder, who introduces himself as Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower), who quite dispassionately informs her that she is obviously not a “mundane” – that is, human — because she can see him. She’s a Shadow Hunter, from a long line of Shadow Hunters, and she holds a secret that everyone is after – the whereabouts of a Chalice that enables the Shadow Hunters to survive. She has no idea what he’s talking about.
In its bare bones, this is a classic coming of age story – Clary has to learn who and what she is and what she can do, and then how to do it. Add in werewolves, led by her mother’s sort-of boyfriend, Luke (Aidan Turner); a mad Shadow Hunter, Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who claims to be not only Clary’s father, but Jace’s; vampires, who aren’t totally friendly; assorted demons; and the Portal, which can transport a Shadow Hunter to anywhere he or she can visualize clearly, and you have the makings of an engaging and action-packed adventure story on top of it.
Director Harold Zwart delivers on this one. I really knew nothing about the Mortal Instruments series, or even that the series existed, before I saw this film. I admit, I was not riveted by Collins’ performance on first viewing, but on second viewing, it does hang together better, although a bit more clarity would have helped. I suspect this is not all due to Collins – there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for subtlety in the script, which affects all the characters, although Collins has the hardest job. Bower, while engaging, is rather remote, which initially fits the character, but the fit is less good as the story progresses. Sheehan is appealing as Simon, in good part because he’s really the only one who lets us into his head.
That may be the ultimate flaw in the film – while I don’t think that every movie has to have an overwhelmingly important message, it should have enough substance to stick with you for a while, whether it be in the depth of characterizations, the synergy between script and execution, the structure of the narrative, those things that make a movie something unique. This one doesn’t.
The DVD includes, as usual, some special features, of which two are interesting – the actors, director, and author Cassandra Clare discussing the characters, and a featurette on the action sequences and fight scenes; it’s worth noting that the actors all trained, in some cases for months, and did as much of their own stunt work as possible.
(Constantin Film Produktion, Unique Features, Mr. Smith Productions, 2013; DVD from Sony Pictures). Full credits at IMDb. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1538403/?ref_=nv_sr_1