Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Franchise starter, franchise killer

The first entry in the 'Mortal Instruments' series gives no reason why it should continue

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
Screen Gems
Director: Harald Zwart
Screenplay: Jessica Postigo, based on the novel by Cassandra Clare
Starring: Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheehan, Lena Headey, Jemima West, Kevin Zegers, CCH Pounder, Jared Harris and Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 10 minutes
August 21, 2013
(out of four)

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is what happens when Hollywood misunderstands its own successes. It was clearly shaped and molded as a young-adult successor to the likes of Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games. It wasn't a solitary gambit - the studios have been scooping up YA properties left and right the last few years, hoping at least a couple of them would bring in the same kind of business - but it's been a colossal miscalculation, based on the faulty premise that you can manufacture one cultural phenomenon by trying to fit the profile of another.

To take the logic even further, there is this: Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series began as Harry Potter fan fiction. Now it has been immortalized on film DCP as a bad, bad Harry Potter imitation. And soon it will be left in the would-be franchise dustbin alongside The Host, Beautiful Creatures, I Am Number Four and, more than likely, next year's Divergent. (Sorry, Shailene!)

From a business standpoint, the impulse to try to usher in the next massive teen blockbuster franchise shows an odd lack of understanding of what generates interest on a mass scale. In this case, it seems as if the decision to greenlight City of Bones - as well as the aforementioned failures - is the result of some arcane computer algorithm or something. Instead of taking into account the fact that Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games were monster sensations before their filmed versions came out - everyone was aware of them, even those who'd never ready any of the books - decision-makers look at the superficial ingredients shared by all three, and assume they can easily replicate something vaguely similar enough to produce a hit. It happens with every genre that proves to have a viable market.

City of Bones plays out like a Frankenstein's Monster of YA fiction, pieced together from the guts and appendages of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. A little sorcery, a secret society, a pretty girl being fought for by two pretty boys, a sinister force who may hold the fate of the world in his hands, what have you. What we get is an assembly-line product reverse-engineered to do its best impression of other, more successful movies.

What's even more conspicuous is how even the most interesting sparks of individuality the film shows - the vaguely fetishistic aesthetic of black leather and body art, hinting at something more intrinsically sexual and subversive - is stifled by its reliance on an utterly conventional love triangle. It all centers around Clary (Lily Collins), who spends seemingly all her free time with mild-mannered Simon (Robert Sheehan), who's buried deep in the friend zone with little hope of escape. His prospects get even worse when the dark and mysterious Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower, who you may know as the guy who looks like that other guy from The Host and Percy Jackson) comes along and captures Clary's innocent heart.

Clary can't help but grab Jace's attention as well, given that she can see him when no one else can. He's a shadow hunter, you see, and he hunts demons - posing as normal people, natch - invisibly. At least to a Muggle Mundane. Clary is no such Muggle Mundane. In fact, her mother (Lena Headey) was a shadow hunter herself, a secret she's tried to keep from her daughter for years.

For one reason or another (narrative clarity is not among the film's strong suits), the evil, enigmatic Voldemort Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is trying to get his hands on something called the Mortal Cup, which I assume will give him dominion over the earth or something. It doesn't matter. All that's important is that he and his henchmen are the bad guys, and Jace, Clary and Co. are bound and determined to stop him from getting the Cup. In the meantime, they take the opportunity to rapidly fall in love, music video-style, serenaded by a song that would not be out of place in a Dawson's Creek episode. This leads to a staggeringly cheesy moment when their "passion" ignites such heat (read: it's lukewarm at best) that the sprinklers go off just as their lips touch and the cheesy love song reaches its crescendo. And that is the extent of the romance. (Like most of these fantasy romance movies, City of Bones' idea of sexual chemistry extends only from the neck up.) (And yes, I've tried desperately hard to resist making a sex pun about the movie's title.)

Either through their own lack of imagination or the studio's, director Harald Zwart and screenwriter Jessica Postigo do little with either the love triangle or the story surrounding it. The film necessarily relies on specific details and plot points, but you could really substitute them for any other detail or plot point from any other teen fantasy movie of the last five years and it wouldn't make much of a difference.

And that is the movie's problem in a nutshell. Aside from a few small things here and there, there is little to separate this movie, or this story, from dozens of others. This is a better movie than the Twilight entries I was unlucky enough to see, but at least those movies were a special kind of cheap, campy, pandering awfulness. City of Bones doesn't even have the creative courage to be that; it's satisfied just to go through the motions, to soullessly act out a cobbled-together concept of what is expected of the genre.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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