The Good: Concept, Special effects, Acting
The Bad: Moments of character
The Basics: The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones lives up to those hoping for a strong and compelling fantasy film, though those looking for something truly dark and adult will find it a little lacking.
Every year for the last several, Summer Blockbuster Season has been characterized by several predictable and consistent trends. The major studios release the big special effect-driven movies fast and at calculated intervals to dominate the box office for one or two weeks before the next predicted (and usually) sure thing knocks it off its pedestal. It is not a time of year known for high concept films and by August, the big studios have gotten their year’s worth of ticket sales out of the consumers before hitting the September Slump and then (increasingly earlier each year) Oscar Pandering Season. The August pre-slump is usually the time of year that the studios dump out the comedies and one or two movies that they did not quite believe in enough to release early in Summer Blockbuster Season to even attempt to compete against the big studio releases.
It is there, in the time frame usually reserved for raucous comedies and romantic comedies that make for obvious date fare for the crowds of college-going students returning to campus, that Sony and Screen Gems will release The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones. The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones is based upon a young adult fantasy book (which became a series) and in the interest of full disclosure, I have not read the book series, so this is a review solely of the movie with no basis for comparison. There seems to be a serious bias (in the media) against the young adult fantasy genre and earlier this year the genre took a hit when Beautiful Creatures (reviewed here!) and The Host (reviewed here!) both underperformed. Fortunately for the fans of great cinema, The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones - despite pulling some punches, especially on the gore front – is a more engaging and mature outing than this year’s early genre flops. In fact, despite the love triangle element that might inspire some comparison to The Twilight Saga (reviewed here!), The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones is more like Constantine (reviewed here!) meets Underworld (reviewed here!) than a sappy romance. In fact, to its credit, The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones carefully promises not to pursue the same mundane formula in the sequels by the resolution to this film, which is nice.
Clary Fray is a normal young woman living in New York City (except that, despite her youth, she is able to go clubbing without getting stopped, which given how young she looks forces one of the first acts of suspension of disbelief in the audience) with no clue that she is different from anyone else in the world. However, one night at a club, she watches as Jace Wayland kills another person at the club. She is baffled that no one else in the club, especially security, notices Jace and the next day, Clary confronts him. Her attempt to learn more is cut short by a phone call from her mother that sends her rushing home to discover her mother gone and a demon there. She is attacked by the demon and following the conflict, she is brought to the realm of the Shadowhunters, a world concealed from mundane eyes by a glamour.
The Shadowhunters, supernatural magic users who are fighting against demons here on Earth, are fascinated by Clary as she (if she truly is a mundane human) should not be able to see them. Through the intervention of Brooklyn’s High Warlock, Magnus Bane, Clary and her allies – her friend Simon, Jace, and the Lightwoods, Alec and Isabella – learn that there is a mental block in Clary’s head and that she may have the Sight, due in part to her mother being a Shadowhunter. As Jace and Clary get closer, Simon becomes jealous and hurt, they begin a search for Clary’s mother, Jocelyn, whose abduction seems to be tied to the mysterious Mortal Cup, a Shadowhunter artifact of great power. But Jocelyn’s hiding of the Mortal Cup makes it clear to Clary and her allies that the Shadowhunter who wants the Cup, the presumed-dead Valentine Morgenstern, may have the most sinister of motives.
The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones works as well as it does because introduces the viewer to the universe of the Shadowhunters, demons, and supernatural creatures at the same time as Clary gets her education in the same. While such a formula could be a disastrous excuse for clunky exposition, director Harald Zwart rather effectively uses the film medium to show the viewer the world as Clary sees it. Following the murder at the club her world literally changes overnight into one populated by creatures and concepts that she has not been exposed to before. The result is an unsettling and abrupt change in Clary’s life. Zwart has that world unfold in a way that feels surprisingly organic; Clary starts to see the Shadowhunters and demons all around her and then enters the hidden world from which the movie derives its title.
To its credit, despite having a number of similarities to Beautiful Creatures (up to and including the token wizened black woman who seems to have all the answers about the protagonist’s past), The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones feels remarkably fresh because of the whirlwind pace and the essential quest in the movie. Clary is a young woman in the process of becoming. At fifteen/sixteen, it is entirely natural that she would still be emotionally tied to her mother, especially considering that she has been raised without a father. Losing her mother becomes a very real and relatable trauma for her and recovering her mother roots her in a realistic goal amid all of the supernatural creatures and settings that suddenly surround her. So, despite how painfully good looking everyone is in this version of New York City (and the supernatural underworld there), the essential character struggle for the film is a compelling one.
Furthermore, The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones might well enhance detractor’s opinions of the genre because the essential conflict is not one of “which boy will Clary fall in love with?” While there are romantic entanglements and crushes abound, the focus of The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones remains tightly on Clary learning about the hidden world around her and desperately searching for her mother. Surrounding those two things, Clary learns very important information about her past and is teased with information about the artifacts like the Mortal Cup.
Clary makes for an initially interesting protagonist, which helps make The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones almost instantly engaging. While she makes some foolish mistakes (rushing into her home when the door has been broken off might play well for the hero in a film, but seems utterly uncharacteristic for a New Yorker!), they are easily excused by her age, as is her naiveté in her relationships. While there is an ample supporting cadre of characters, Simon and Jace are nowhere near as interesting as Clary and Valentine, who is set up to be the series antagonist.
The special effects in The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones are rendered in a satisfying and breathtaking way. More than any of the other fantasy films based on young adult fantasy, setting plays an integral part in The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones and Zwart and his team use the effects remarkably well to create that setting. Between the make-up and the sets (given the scope of so many of them, most are digital) Zwart and the special effects team make a fantastic world seem entirely realistic and most of The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones looks and feels like the viewer is immersed in a real world, instead of watching computer generated special effects creatures and places.
On the acting front, Jonathan Rhys Meyers rules his scenes as Valentine Morgenstern. Meyers manages not to make Morgenstern seem like the typical over-the-top villain and he plays the role with enough ambiguity to leave the viewer wondering if his character’s reasons for abducting Jocelyn are truly entirely sinister in nature. More than anything else, Meyers plays Morgenstern as a credible leader. It seems reasonable that others might follow Morgenstern and willingly do his bidding; that comes more from the on-screen charisma of Jonathan Rhys Meyers than from the lines the character delivers. For their brief time on screen, Lena Headey and CCH Pounder both make their characters (Jocelyn Fray and Madame Dorthea, respectively) interesting enough that we care about their fate and believe the information they provide.
The real surprise is how good Lily Collins is. It was easy to write off Collins in the wake of Mirror Mirror (reviewed here!), but in The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones, like her character, she comes into her own. Collins manages to walk the fine line of making Clary seem surprised and unsettled by the world opening up around her without appearing absolutely stupid. Unlike many young actresses today, Collins emotes quite well without leaving her eyes wide and lips spread (seriously, what is the recent trend in actresses never closing their mouths?! That’s not a conversation thing, either, look at Mary-Louise Parker, she seems to have pioneered a whole brainless performance style that has been immediately adopted by directors everywhere who unfathomably believe that it says something about the character or sex appeal of the actress when they never appear on screen with their mouth fully closed.). Instead, she emotes realistically and makes Clary seem alternatively shaken and determined. As a real plus, Collins seems completely comfortable working with digital characters and settings, always landing the eyelines her character needs to be looking in. The result is that Collins helps sell the character and reality of The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones and the viewer comes to care about Clary (which is a big thing for me as a viewer who has absolutely no inherent investment in the characters having not read the books!).
Ultimately, Sony and Screen Gems have the chance to have the last laugh on Summer Blockbuster Season. Going into the September Slump, they provide a film worth seeing and worth talking about, which ought to make The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones a breakout beyond the already-existing fan base.
For other fantasy films, please check out my reviews of:
The Last Airbender
Hammer Of The Gods
For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the film reviews I have written!
© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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