In The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones, this year’s umpteenth attempt to launch a new YA film franchise, New York City teenager Clary Fray (Lily Collins) discovers that someone has been tampering with her mind since childhood, suppressing pertinent memories of a fantastic world hidden in the cracks and crevices of the everyday. Such a mental procedure should be mandatory for any non-fan who stumbles into the movie, lest suspicious similarities to a pair of slightly more popular YA properties prove too distracting. City Of Bones, which is based on the first book in a wildly successful teen-lit series, features not just a secret cabal of magic people living among the “mundanes,” but also a brooding stalker-hunk, a love triangle, vampires, werewolves, and—because why not?—a touch of Darth Vader daddy issues. On the page, all of these elements may cohere into something distinctive, perhaps through the help of colorful prose. Onscreen, not so much. The producers might well have just changed the subtitle to Breaking Dawn With The Half-Blood Princess.
Like a certain bespectacled wizard, Collins is amazed to find that the supernatural runs in her blood. Her mother (Lena Headey, who spends most the movie in a state of Snow White slumber) is a retired “shadowhunter”—half angel, half human, and at least some percentage pouty fashion model. Lest one assume these holy beings are on an evangelical mission, strapping blond stud Jamie Campbell Bower assures his hot-and-bothered love interest that all faith systems are a-okay. (The movie’s spiritual bent is less polytheistic than simply secular; God is a no-show, at least in this inaugural chapter.) With no time to perform miracles, the shadowhunters instead put the righteous hurt on incognito demons, laying low in New York like the extraterrestrial immigrants of Men In Black. Borrowing every single component of its complicated plot from other sources, The Mortal Instruments is hodgepodge claptrap, but there’s a faint flicker of fun in its introducing-the-world passages. Monster fans, at the very least, should get a kick out of some of the beasties, including a squishy, shape-shifting dog creature that invades Collins’ apartment. As with everything else in the film, it’s a recycled attraction, though there are worse movies to lift from than John Carpenter’s The Thing.
“I’m so confused,” Collins says early on, when City Of Bones first begins to contradict its own convoluted mythology. Audiences may relate: This is yet another YA property built on dense arcana, a strategy that may create a secret language among readers, but can often leave the casual viewer feeling overwhelmed by all the silly names and endless exposition. Most of the movie concerns the hunt for the mortal instrument of the title, a golden chalice (a.k.a. MacGuffin) whose significance director Harald Zwart fails to convey. Jam-packed with uninspired CGI blitzkriegs and thankless roles for actors too good for them—Jared Harris as a sad-eyed professor type, Kevin Durand as a mere goon—City Of Bones occasionally courts camp appreciation. There is, for example, a hoot-worthy moment in which the villain (a ridiculous Jonathan Rhys Meyers) convinces Bower of his true lineage by turning the boy’s ring upside down, hence revealing that a “W” can also be an “M.” Mostly, however, the film just summons that old Twilight feeling, a sense of being stuck in a fantasy not fit for post-adolescent eyes. Whomever shepherds the in-the-works sequel would be wise to tilt it away from Stephenie Meyer and more toward the J.K. Rowling side of the YA spectrum. Steal from the best, etc.