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‘The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones’ Review: A Rune Without a Clue

By  · Published on August 21st, 2013

Clary (Lily Collins) has moved to Brooklyn with her mom (Lena Headey) and pseudo step-dad, but while her best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) still lives close enough to visit on a daily basis something is amiss. A visit to a nightclub sees her witness a murder that no one else seems aware of, and when she awakens the next morning after a night of somnambulistic rune doodling her day goes progressively downhill. Her mom is abducted, their apartment is left in disarray, and she’s attacked by a dog that’s seen John Carpenter’s The Thing one too many times. On the bright side though she meets and falls for Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), the lanky, blond killer from the night before, and discovers that she’s not quite the “mundane” teen she thought she was. Instead, she’s descended from a line of Shadowhunters tasked with killing demons, policing vampires, and keeping Hot Topic in business. Together they race to rescue her mom and find the chalice from the palace with the brew that is true before the evil Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) can use it to rule the world.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is the first film in a hopeful new franchise based on the best-selling YA fantasy series, but while it checks the boxes on many of the genre’s most common ingredients it neglects the ones necessary to tell a good and engaging story. It’s crowded, dumb and more interested in the set-piece destination than in the journey getting there, but if nothing else there are also some impressive visual effects and many, many unintentionally funny moments.

“The rune to fix a broken heart is the most painful one of all.”

The basic setup sees Clary discovering two things. First, the world is filled with hidden magic including demons, werewolves, vampires and, well, magic. And second, she has a very special role thanks to both her lineage and a secret memory that’s been obfuscated in her mind by her mother. The Shadowhunters, including Jace and brother/sister duo Alec (Kevin Zegers) and Isabelle (Jemima West), take Clary to their hidden NYC headquarters invisible to mortal eyes where she gets a history lesson from Hodge (Jared Harris) the librarian. She learns a lot from her hosts and her immediate adventures, and therein lies one of the film’s biggest issues.

Jessica Postigo’s script, along with Harold Zwart’s direction, tries to jam far too much into one movie, and very little of it is done gracefully or naturally. Facts, rules and story points are thrown at viewers with little concern of them sticking leading to a general confusion as to what exactly is happening and/or important. Are vampires good or bad? In one scene hunters and vamps are partying together, but in the next our heroes are fighting an urban hive of the fanged folk (an admittedly cool scene). Do demons possess otherwise normal people, or are they inhabiting fictional human shells? We’re told the former, but we’re also repeatedly told that two possessed cops aren’t “real cops” and are meant to cheer the demise of the film’s magical ethnic character. Are the Shadowhunters’ runes, the ones tattooed all over their bodies, a means of casting spells or not? We’re told so, but almost none of them are used in any of the battles. Why bother when you have knives I guess.

Equally damaging, for a film that runs over two hours precious little time is spent creating or building characters. It’s impossible to name a single one of Clary’s non plot-oriented character traits because she doesn’t have any. The film hits the ground running, and while that’s fine for pulling viewers in immediately the movie never allows time to get to know its lead character. All we know of Clary is what she needs to know for this adventure. The rest fare no better as aside from the thousand year old Jace being emotionally stunted we learn little about any of them. It’s a far cry from one of this year’s other YA adaptations, the criminally underseen Beautiful Creatures, which managed characters with real depth and personality amidst the magical battles.

There are multiple head-scratchers too, and while some of them result in unintentional hilarity (the ring!) most just leave viewers wondering why they should care. A certain relationship, the lack of follow-up to one character’s restored vision, the arrival of The Silent Brothers who are actually pretty chatty, and the highly inconsistent rules of entry to the magic castle are all elements that raise questions without answers.

The cast is fine although no one stands out with anything resembling an energetic or charismatic performance. Collins’ character is a go-getter of sorts while the boys (and men) in her life are little more than wise-cracking sourpusses, and not even the normally radiant Headey can bring much to the table. Rhys Meyers however still manages to make a meal of much of the scenery for whatever that’s worth.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones may appeal to fans of the books who already know the complete story and simply want to see it brought to life onscreen, but for everyone else it’s just a jumbled mess. There’s too much empty information here and not enough nuance or character. There are laughs, but most of them are unintentional. There are some exciting visuals, but they’re in service of events and characters that mean nothing. The end result is a story that tries too hard with too little, and much like the secret buried deep in Clary’s mind this is a film destined to be forgotten.

The Upside: Some exciting and cool effects sequences; some laughs

The Downside: Script is nonsense jammed too tightly together with idiocy; unintentionally funny; characters lack character; feels long

On the Side: Apparently Alex Pettyfer was the first choice for the role of Jace, but he probably realized that one failed YA franchise on his resume was enough and passed.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.