“What does that symbol mean?”
Another Young Adult fantasy fiction trilogy to throw into the Hollywood machine, Cassandra Clare‘s The Mortal Instruments gives Sony a property looking for broad appeal via its similarities to the darker Harry Potters, the overwrought love triangle in Twilight, and a PG-13 filtered “True Blood” collection of every supernatural species you can imagine (besides zombies of course, duh, stupid). It’s a world of Shadow Hunters—angel descendants who battle demons to protect the Mundanes (Muggles) unaware of the fight like you and me. Using ancient runes drawn on their bodies to wield powers of invisibility, healing, or whatever else Clare deems necessary to keep their dwindling numbers alive in the context of the saga, only the lost Mortal Cup’s magic can replenish their ranks before the demons prevail.
Adapted by Jessica Postigo and directed by Harald Zwart, the first installment, City of Bones, introduces us to the universe as its heroine discovers her place inside its secretive fraternity. Her name is Clary Fray (Lily Collins) and she has been sheltered from the truth of her lineage by her mother Jocelyn (Lena Headey) and family friend Luke (Aidan Turner) since childhood. She is the key to locating the elusive Cup and her approaching eighteenth birthday opens a floodgate of memories and abilities that start to interrupt her once normal life. One second she’s hanging with best bud Simon (Robert Sheehan) at a club way outside their usual comfort zone and the next has her watching two hunters murder a demon within a crowded room none the wiser. She sees them, they see her, and the adventure begins.
Taking the generic tale of good turning evil we’ve seen from Star Wars‘ Darth Vader (this parallel doesn’t end there, wink) and Harry Potter‘s Voldemort, the Shadow Hunters’ war is more complex than simply killing demons. One of their own—Jonathan Rhys Meyers‘ Valentine—has gone rogue in the usual power-hungry way of deciding it better to control their enemy rather than destroy it. His dark experimentations with the Cup lead to its disappearance at the hands of former allies and directly cause Jocelyn to hide Clary from this disintegrating life. While living like a Mundane became their chance at survival against Valentine’s relentless pursuit, though, it’s only a matter of time before worlds collide again. And as eighteen’s the prime age in YA fiction to understand one’s true purpose, Clary might as well receive her crash course.
The exposition of the film’s first half is actually pretty interesting until the direct angels versus demons plotline is muddled by vampires and werewolves and melodramatic puppy love. High stakes are set with the brashly confident Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), sibling duo of Alec (Kevin Zegers) and Isabelle (Jemima West), and shut-in sage leader Hodge (Jared Harris) proving the last soldiers for peace alive; cool magic is put on display with a portal in the basement of the Shadow Hunters’ Institute providing access to anywhere the heart wants to go and mystical weaponry that kills the demons inside possessed human beings; and an intriguing mythology is expanded upon with flashbacks to its origins and insight into the major players’ motivations. And then comes the unavoidable lull that derails any and all momentum.
With a laughable soundtrack of rock ballads playing over Clary’s “impossible” decision of picking the boy who loves her (Simon) and the one she lusts after (Jace), we sit through a drawn-out, half-baked romantic triangle serving no purpose over than to make tween girls swoon. And rather than infuse camp so we can feel in on the joke, it plays out as though it’s the kind of destined love undeserving of the snickers heard throughout the theatre. What happened to the war? What happened to survival? Oh, yeah, we’re dealing with a bunch of hormonal teenagers who can’t control their libidos in the face of certain death—that’s what happened. Valentine finally shows up with some fire demons in tow to get things back on track, but the damage had already been done.
This is City of Bones‘ major failure—every step it takes towards becoming a fun fantastical adventure is followed by two more dragging it down to the level of a cheesy paperback romance found at the checkout aisle. This wouldn’t necessarily be a horrible thing if it stuck to that line of thinking for the duration like the Twilight series does, but The Mortal Instruments appears to want more. Clare writes in enough deception, traitorous acts, secretive reveals, and brutal action to rise above such hormonal excess that its arrival causes too much of a tonal shift to simply accept and move on. No, it clouds the halfway decent ideas and turns natural progression into carefully manipulated movements that ultimately care more about earning gasps at who loves who than the bigger picture.
Pair these misguided forks in a road that should be paved towards preventing Hell on Earth with shoddy special effects—I’m looking at you demon dog, slimy thing—and uncharismatic performances—sorry Godfrey Gao, but your Magnus Bane was the most uninteresting shaman I’ve ever seen—and you have nothing onscreen but wasted potential. While Collins is effective as the conflicted heroine, Harris perfect as the good-natured expert, and Sheehan the epitome of lovelorn friend-zoned geek, the rest act like they’re all in different films. Kevin Durand‘s over-the-top villainy is what City of Bones needed to lean towards, not the brooding of Campbell Bower and Rhys Meyers. What should have been fun becomes overly dramatic and boring way too quick and never recovers. We can only hope the next two installments learn from its mistakes.
 Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) tells (Lily Collins) about his childhood in Screen Gems fantasy-action THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES. PHOTO BY: Rafy © 2013 Constantin Film International GmbH and Unique Features (TMI) Inc. All rights reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
 Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) stares at the portal in Screen Gems fantasy-action THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES. PHOTO BY: Rafy © 2013 Constantin Film International GmbH and Unique Features (TMI) Inc. All rights reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
 Clary (Lily Collins) watches as Magnus Bane (Godfrey Gao) greets his guests in Screen Gems fantasy-action THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES. PHOTO BY: Rafy © 2013 Constantin Film International GmbH and Unique Features (TMI) Inc. All rights reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.