The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013)
130 min., rated PG-13.
Next in line to be another epic teen supernatural-fantasy franchise like a guiltily entertaining "Twilight," "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" is studio Screen Gems' hopeful attempt to get in on the action (read: cash) but has so little to show for itself besides being derivative, interminably dopey and overcooked, and just plain interminable YA fan fiction. Based on Cassandra Clare's series of six novels, which must have dodged plagiarism by pilfering ideas disparately from "Star Wars" to "Harry Potter" to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," this also-ran is pure baloney with mostly dodgy CG effects, exhausting piling on of characters and exposition, and groan-inducing dialogue seemingly ghost-written by a head-in-the-clouds tween. What should be a fun mash-up, as director Harald Zwart (he of 2010's "The Karate Kid" remake) and first-time screenwriter Jessica Postigo Paquette throw in everything from angels and demons to vampires and werewolves to X-ray vision wands and laser pens, but this imitative saga is too watered-down by its PG-13 rating and rarely ever as engaging or imaginative as it might read on the page.
The day before her 16th birthday, ordinary Brooklyn teen Clary Fray (Lily Collins) begins scribbling a symbol (or, a triangular rune) and seeing it everywhere, much to the worry of her painter mother (Lena Headey) who isn't telling her daughter something. She and brother-like best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) go to a goth nightclub, where she's the only one who witnesses the slaying of a male clubber. She's also the only one who can see the slayer—that's right, you guessed it, Clary isn't a "mundane" (a human), but a Shadow Hunter (a demon slayer). After two goons break into her apartment looking for a magical cup, Mom drinks a potion that puts her into a coma and is then kidnapped. From the nightclub slayer, a tattooed, naturally blonde Shadow Hunter named Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) who is actually there to protect her with his life, Clary learns her mother was a Shadow Hunter, too ("No, my mother is a painter!" she exclaims). Eventually, Jace takes her to The Institute, an ancient NYC ruin disguised as an old cathedral populated by (two) other Shadow Hunters and headmaster Hodge (Jared Harris), so they can blather more exposition and backstory about Clary's destiny, rescue her mother, and save the day from a Darth Vader type, Valentine Morgenstern (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, bringing the camp), who will kill for that cup.
Initially, and then off and on in odd stretches, "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" admittedly works up a modicum of interest, even if it's all straight-faced, supremely silly claptrap. Save for a growling Rottweiler morphing into a slimy, tentacled demon, a demonic little girl standing in an empty street, and Clary's witch neighbor Dorothea's (CCH Pounder) scary demonic transformation, it could have been deliciously darker, creepier, and weirder, but all potential gets sucked out of the enterprise when there's still a whole other hour left on the clock. The titular City of Bones (a cemetery tomb that should seem to hold more importance if it comes after the title proper's colon) becomes an afterthought. Also, the fact that Simon has been bitten by a vampire, even after Clary has taken notice of it, is sloppily and forgettably brushed off, while a questionably incestuous relationship is still left up in the air and nonchalantly embraced so the film could have its happy ending of lovers nestled in close and driving off on a motorcycle. Apparently, the filmmakers either intended this to be subversively perverse or never caught it in the writing stages, or during principal photography or reshoots, but the viewer will. In the end, nothing is really resolved; the bad guy goes back into the watery portal he jumped out of and Mom is left still taking an eternal nap like Princess Aurora.
The pretty Lily Collins is appealing and she makes Clary proactive, at least before she gets sidetracked with the golden tresses of Jace. Resembling a punk underwear model, Jamie Campbell Bower throws off some quips, but the characters' dead-weight romance consists of making googly eyes and laughably making out to an out-of-place Demi Lovato love song. (Had a key revelation been revealed before the heavy petting, minutes could have been judiciously shaved off.) Kevin Zegers stares longingly at Jace, too, as quasi-gay Shadow Hunter Alec, but both relationships would have called for the film to go in more progressive, interestingly outré directions.
The pacing is usually brisk when the film isn't constantly stopping to clue us into what's going on. The cinematography has an atmospheric sheen, the art direction is fine, and the stylish black-leather fashions could spawn their own clothing line at Hot Topic. But beyond all the surface details, the film as a whole is unable to stand out in a crowd, unless it's for being an egregiously busy and ultimately tedious hodgepodge of other, better genre pictures without a personality of its own. Even at a bloated 130 minutes, "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" is paradoxically overstuffed with incomprehensible mythology, becoming an exercise in futility. Why does the damn oh-so-desirable cup even matter? "Without this cup, we are lost," Valentine warns Clary. Good. Not only more efficient and streamlined storytelling with more sense might have helped, but also a goofier sense of humor. One self-aware moment cutely mocks "Twilight," where Clary is injured and, before passing out, says to Jace, "Is this the part where you start tearing off pieces of your shirt to bind my wounds?" He replies with, "If you wanted me to take off my clothes, you should've just asked."
While we're still waiting for follows-up to 2007's "The Golden Compass," 2009's "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant," and this year's "Beautiful Creatures," all of which were under-appreciated and actually deserving of more, it's already been announced that a sequel, "The Mortal Instruments: City of Ashes," will follow this non-starter. However, unless they step up their game and actually capitalize on the books' supposed appeal, everyone involved should have cut their losses. Only those in the chosen demographic will be waiting with bated breath.
Grade: C -