I don’t even really know where to begin with The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, but that’s okay because the movie doesn’t really know where to begin either. It’s a sloppy, shoddy excuse for a fantasy love story where supernatural creations and teen romance are smushed together in the hopes of creating thrills and drama. It’s the equivalent of throwing a bunch of stale ingredients on a table, and then wondering why a meal hasn’t magically happened. It’s difficult to even level the charge of cynical calculation because calculation would at least require some effort. Harold Zwart’s adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s novel is an interminable slog filled with thinly drawn characters, a ramshackle plot, a laughable love story, and perfunctory mythology that never feels magical.
Clary Fray (Lily Collins) has started seeing symbols and people that others can’t. She learns that her ability comes from being the daughter of a shadowhunter. Shadowhunters are half-humans, half-angels who can choose to stay hidden from mundanes (i.e. normal humans), and are tasked with protecting humanity from demons, vampires, werewolves, and other mythological creatures. When her mother (Lena Headey) is kidnapped, Clary begins a search with shadowhunter Jace Weyland (Jamie Campbell Bower), which eventually leads her to hunt for a magical cup. The cup is also being tracked by ex-shadowhunter Valentine (Johnathan Rhys Myers) who wants it for vague but nefarious purposes. In between the half-baked mystical gobbledygook is a love triangle between Clary, Jace, and Clary’s platonic friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) as well as a second love triangle between Clary, Jace, and Jace’s closeted pal Alec (Kevin Zegers).
The urgency in the first half of The Mortal Instruments isn’t to establish characters, but to draw out the world of the shadowhunters. Ostensibly, Clary is frantically searching for her mom, but along the way she learns about the history of the shadowhunters, why the cup is important, and that her memories were blocked off by her mother as a means of protection from dark forces seeking the cup. The reason Clary can now see the shadowhunter world is because the memory blocks are falling away and her powers are emerging. All of this should be fascinating, and the art department has created some eye-catching designs, but there’s no excitement to the discovery. It’s like walking through a museum, and a tour guide dryly explains what’s hanging on the walls. The notion of tattoos functioning as magical ruins that provide special powers should be cool, and The Mortal Instruments just buries it in a heap of mythology.
Sure, vampires, werewolves, demons, and magical powers are all well and good, but Clary doesn’t have half the enthusiasm for these mystical aspects as she does for Jace’s dreamy eyes, and that’s saying something when you consider that Collins and Bower have no chemistry. The film rests on the assumption that if Jace is protective of Clary but makes the occasional, cocky quip, then we should immediately buy into their romance. Instead, when they finally kiss, it’s forced and then made laughable by greenhouse sprinklers turning on just so they can play into the cliché of kissing the rain. If Zwart intends to get a laugh out of the moment, then he’s undermined the scene because that should be a turning point in the love story. He’s literally throwing cold water on their romance.
But by then, the story has already cooled considerably. Halfway through, Clary just seems to stop caring about looking for her mother. Instead, she’s more obsessed with Jace’s rippling abs. That’s not me being glib. She literally spends time sketching a picture of Jace without his shirt on while her mother is missing, possibly dead, and the fate of the world hinges on finding a special cup that could irrevocably change the balance of power between shadowhunters and demons. This is our heroine, and the movie seems far more interested in her vapid love story with Jace.
Zwart has created a directionless, meandering slump of a picture that goes on endlessly. I may not be the target audience, but if the film wants to have a cheesy love story, it should go for it rather than bringing it to an awkward, icky turn before an unintentionally hilarious resolution. The most surprising thing about the movie is how much potential it has, and how little it seems to care about realizing that potential. Clary goes to a couple parties during the course of the movie, and even a fight against a horde of vampires is played like a club scene. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is the sullen wallflower that is too timid, too scared, and too bored to dance, and so it misses out on having any fun.