'The Mortal Instruments': Scraping the bottom of the YA barrel
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones," like so many would-be franchises as of late, is based on a popular YA series. That stands for "young adult," but, trust me, you'd be pardoned for thinking that it stands for "yet another" -- any more generic and this teen-lit adaptation might as well have a plain unbleached-paper label and a title in comic sans. Directed by Harald Zwart (of "Agent Cody Banks," "The Pink Panther 2" and "The Karate Kid"), "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" is made out of little bits and big chunks of too many other similar sagas, from its underbaked script to its badly shot tangle of fights and flights and sights and soapy betrayals. (Even the title is more of the same, with the "(Adjective) (Noun)" -- or, more precisely, "The (Adjective) (Noun)" -- formula that's come to define the modern subgenre.) While hardly great cinema, "The Mortal Instruments" isn't inept and it isn't humorless or ugly, either. The facts are worse than that: It's irrelevant, destined to be viewed on planes or taken off to a farm in the country where it can play with other could-have-been YA franchise starters, like "The Golden Compass," "The Vampire's Assistant" or "Beautiful Creatures."
In our modern five-years-back version of film history, "Twilight" primed the pump for supernatural teen angst in this recent era. But this has always been fertile night soil: See 1957's "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" for proof. What "Twilight" did was set the template for not just the themes but the structure and sentiment of the stories that came in its wake. A dark-haired outsider of a girl is drawn to a handsome, mysterious boy with a British accent, high cheekbones and arcane knowledge while her stalwart dude friend looks on, pining. The clashing of various factions on various sides of some supernatural hugger-mugger, revolving around a MacGuffin of great price, must be resolved -- ideally by our dark-haired heroine, who has powers/a heritage of sorcery/a destiny she knew nothing of.
Here, the specifics are that Clary (Lily Collins) is a perfectly normal young woman living with her mom, Jocelyn (Lena Headey), in New York (Toronto). Clary's hounded and haunted by a symbol she keeps drawing, a symbol she then sees outside of a nightclub. Entering, she meets Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) under less-than-ideal circumstances, as he's killing a demon along with some co-workers. The fact Clary can see this marks her as a Shadowhunter, an angel-human hybrid who can see and fight demons -- and through various weapons, mystical objects and power runes tattooed on their skin, dispatch them. Clary can see them, which she shouldn't ...
Because her mom was a Shadowhunter, and her mom long ago hid the whatsit everyone wants, the Mortal Cup. I can't really say why she hid it or what the cup will do once it's obtained: Everything in this film is like a shadow of a sketch of a story, all outline and gestures. At one point, our bad guy taunts Jace about how the rules of Shadowhunting are clearly troubling him -- a statement with no actual story-based proof or examples on the screen to back it up outside of the bad guy's assertion. This is a movie that doesn't know the basics of screenwriting or magic, namely to show and not tell.
Collins is precisely the kind of actress you snap into a film like this as if you were making it from Ikea. Aside from using one actor to hilarious effect as a demonic engine of destruction, the other actors and parts are sketchy at best, with half-assed love pentangles and too many dangling plot threads (at one point we zoom in significantly on nice-guy nerd Simon (Robert Sheehan) for a reveal that that is never resolved) and an overcaffeinated need to grasp for more and more spectacle.
With a script by Jessica Postigo taken from Cassandra Clare's novels, "The Mortal Instruments" doesn't have the weird, creepy gender-and-sexual politics of "Twilight" or "Beautiful Creatures." At the same time, when Collins goes from schmoe to Shadowhunter, she gets a makeover that, essentially, functions the exact same way as the one Olivia Newton-John got at the end of "Grease," and the big reveal Jonathan Rhys Meyer's bad guy drops on our leads is icky and clumsy and clammy, too. Geologists and engineers wondering when (not if) we'll use up the finite amount of petroleum products on this planet through gas-guzzling and greed call that potential future state "peak oil." "The Mortal Instruments" is enough to make you wonder if Hollywood has, for lack of a better term, reached "peak YA," because if we weren't running on empty already, "The Mortal Instruments" looks and feels like the thin, acrid, rank fumes you get when you reach the end of the tank and the bottom of the barrel.
James Rocchi has written reviews and articles for print and online publications, including Total Film Magazine, the Toronto Star, IndieWire's The Playlist, Mother Jones, AMCtv.com and Cinematical.com. He's covered film festivals, including Sundance, Cannes, the Toronto International Film Festival, SXSW and Fantastic Fest. He's been an on-air reviewer for CBS-5 San Francisco and a reviewer and commentator for CNN, G4, TechTV and more. He lives in Los Angeles, which is both exactly and not at all like the movies suggest it is.