Where’s the city of Booths?
Yet another bestselling young adult series makes it to the big screen in the hopes of cashing in on some of that sweet Harry Potter / Twilight / The Hunger Games action. This time around, it’s author Cassandra Clare’s urban fantasy epic The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.
Clary Fray (Lily Collins, Mirror Mirror) is an ordinary Manhattan teenager, except that she keeps seeing people no one else can see, and she keeps drawing this odd symbol without knowing why. Her life is then uprooted in a big way when a monster attacks her home and her mother is abducted.
Clary meets Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower, Sweeney Todd), who is a shadowhunter, part of a New York secret society dedicated to battling demons. Turns out Clary’s mom was a shadowhunter, and there are plans for Clary to become one, too.
All this is happening because of a sinister fellow named Valentine (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, The Tudors), who wants to locate the Mortal Cup, one of three Mortal Instruments that can grant him control over demons and shadowhunters alike. The location of both the cup and Clary’s missing mother are somehow hidden within Clary’s mind.
Full disclosure: Although I’m normally a read-the-book-first-then-see-the-movie guy, I didn’t do that this time around, instead going into The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones knowing very little about it. With most movies-from-books, I often wonder how the movie plays for those who haven’t read the book, and now I’m in that very position.
To call this movie plot-heavy would be an understatement. It’s plot bombardment. (Plotbardment?) First we’ve got the shadowhunters and their whole secret society, and with it comes a ton of characters we’re being introduced to all at once. Then, there’s the back story with the history of the shadowhunters and how that ties into the Mortal Cup and the mystery of Clary’s mom. Then, on top of that, there’s a clan of vampires, a secretive Tarot card reader, a gloomy magical cemetery caretaker, a group of werewolf car mechanics (!), and more. By the end of the movie, everybody’s running around these hidden passageways all fighting each other, with a big laser beam thing pointed at the sky, folks falling in and out of portals (Cordelia: “There are portals now?”), and a series of big dramatic revelations about who these characters really are. There are so many characters, so much mythology, and so many twists, that newbies will be lost.
Fans of this series are no doubt already preparing their responses, each of which I’m sure can be boiled to, “That was explained in the book.” That’s okay, because clearly the filmmakers are very passionate about the material, and are trying to get as much stuff from the book into the movie that they possibly can. That’s admirable, and I totally respect that, but the final result feels rushed. For example, they introduce the shadowhunters’ hideout, which is this cool underground lair hidden deep within New York. I love urban fantasy stuff like this, but we’re barely given a chance to get to know this new environment when we’re whisked away for a vampire fight and then exposition about magic portals, and then a different expository scene about ancient runes, and so on.
If you can keep up with the longwinded explaining of everything, you’ll find parts of the movie are quite enjoyable, usually when it slows down long enough to let the actors catch their breath and, you know, act. Lily Collins makes for a nice “everygirl” for the story to center around, and the scenes where she and Jace grow close feel genuinely heartfelt. Similarly, Clary’s goofball friend Simon (Robert Sheehan, Season of the Witch) is along for the ride, and throughout the film he transitions from comic relief to showing his more serious, romantic side. They’re clearly setting his character up for big things in future sequels. The action scenes are another bonus, in which director Harald Zwart (Agent Cody Banks) stays away from shaky-cam so we can enjoy the elaborate fight choreography in all its detail.
I love fantasy, so I’m happy to suspend disbelief all over the place, but this movie has a couple of “unintentional comedy” scenes that might be enough to ruin it for some people. A revelation regarding classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach of all people comes across as ludicrous. An action scene involving the Tarot reader character, which serves only to embarrass the great actress C.C.H. Pounder (Avatar), something sad to see.
No expense was spared on this flick, with gorgeous costumes and set design, which you can take in with great detail on The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (Blu-ray). Colors are rich and lush, skin tones are natural, and blacks are deep and rich. The sound is also top notch, with a lot of atmospheric effects, clean dialogue, and an immersive score. Bonus features begin with two featurettes, one about the actors and one about the stunts, along with deleted scenes and a music video. Then there are the Blu-ray exclusive bonus features: additional actor interviews, a look at creating the creatures, and a book-to-screen featurette. Finally, there’s a “lineage tracker,” another Blu-ray exclusive, that’s a chart you click through with your remote, offering further information about the characters, the factions, and the overall mythology (again the fans say, “This was explained in the book.”)
Perhaps The Mortal Instruments would have been better adapted as a TV series rather than a feature. That way, you could develop the world-building and all the big twists over several hours instead of just two, with the mystery of Clary’s mom and the Mortal Cup serving as a season-long arc. As it is now, the movie has its good points, but it is information overload. See it only if you must see everything fantasy.