Starring Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheehan, Aidan Turner, Jared Harris, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Lena Headey
My rating: ★★ 1/2 stars
Another attempt to create a successful franchise out of a young adult fantasy novel series.
The lack of box-office success of City of Bones, the first installment of The Mortal Instruments series, can probably be attributed to a singularly bad marketing strategy that failed to convey what the movie was about, rather than to a lack of quality of the filmmaking. The film has its flaws, but its level of quality is not much different from that of the successful Twilight or The Hunger Games franchises.
One big problem with the film is the lack of exposition. Early in the film, we viewers are introduced to a magical cup that everyone wants to get a hold of—a classic MacGuffin. What remains unclear are the stakes involved in getting the cup. We don’t know what it means if the bad guy gets it. We don’t know why it’s so important that the bad guy be defeated. In trying to condense the complex mythology of the book series to something that works on screen, the filmmakers left out key details that would allow the audience to invest fully in the struggle of the heroes.
The film’s main focus is on Clary Fray (Lily Collins), whose mother, Jocelyn (Lena Headey), vanishes right around the time that Clary meets a mysterious young man, Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower). Jace leads Clary and her friendzoned companion, the geeky Simon (Robert Sheehan) into the world of the Shadowhunters. Shadowhunters protect the world from vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness. (Oh, wait, that’s Buffy. Actually, the Shadowhunters are okay with vampires, except when they’re not—like during the huge vampire/Shadowhunter battle in the middle of the film, the reasons for which are explained more fully in the book.) Clary turns out to be a Shadowhunter, herself; she just can’t remember it because of a spell put on her. The premises of any of these franchises can sound absurd when laid out in a bare description. Much of this business is nonsense, lacking gravitas, but it can be fun nonsense if we’re given enough incentive to follow the characters on their journeys into these worlds.
For me, that incentive was the emotional subplots. This component wasn’t exploited as fully as it could have been. The scenes of characters falling in love, talking about their feelings, or avoiding talking about their feelings are some of the best. I would have liked to see more development of the character relationships, even if that meant cutting some of the fight scenes.
At 130 minutes, the film is long. A lot of the fighting goes on beyond what is necessary to create action and excitement until tedium starts to set in. But I have a notoriously low threshold for battle scenes. A little is exciting, but, after that, I just want to get back to the story. Nonetheless, the battles look great. I was actually impressed with the fight editing in the film. Too many movies cut their battle scenes so frenetically that it’s difficult to tell what is going on. Following the progress of the battles here is easy, even if we’re not sure why exactly the characters are fighting.
The demon effects look technically fine, although I’m not thrilled with the aesthetic design of the demons. They don’t look frightening, and they don’t look cool. If anything, they look at little silly.
Collins is an appealing young lead. She doesn’t have the awkwardness of Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, but, unfortunately, she doesn’t give off as strong a presence as Jennifer Lawrence does in The Hunger Games. City of Bones would have benefited from delving into her character’s inner life more fully. Beyond the simple goal of finding her mother, we don’t really know who Clary is. She reacts to finding out about the world of the Shadowhunters by a simple acknowledgement that it feels to her like everything has changed. Jace tells her that she is the one who has changed, but we, the viewers, are not so clear on what she’s changed from and to, beyond the material change in circumstances. How she’s changed on the inside is not clear because we’re never given a glimpse of this side of her.
We get a much stronger sense of her male counterpart, Jace. He has been raised in the harsh world of the Shadowhunters, which “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain” as the old poem says (“Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold). Bower is an interesting performer. He gives a sense that there is much more going on with this thoughts and emotions than he shows on the surface; it’s perfect for the character. However, his unusual look, the angularity, paleness, lankiness (more sinew than six-pack), might have been a factor in the film’s trouble at the box office. He doesn’t have the pretty boy accessibility of the typical love interest.
Ultimately, City of Bones is fast-paced and diverting, but I wish it had been better. While there certainly was room for improvement, the film also contained the potential for improvement. The raw materials for a good franchise are here. Despite the box office failure of the film, the ABC Family network has picked up the Shadowhunters franchise as a series. I’ll watch because I would like to more time in this world.
STUFF THAT AMUSED ONLY ME (PROBABLY)
The older Shadowhunter who advises his young protégés is played by Jared Harris, son of the late actor Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore, the first two Harry Potter films). When I saw Jared Harris in a scene with Jamie Campbell Bower, who played young Gellert Grindlewald, Dumbledore’s special friend, in the Harry Potter series, I wanted Bower to say, “Hey, I knew your dad. Really well.”
When Lena Headey’s Jocelyn chastises her daughter for leading on her friend Simon, Clary responds, “Please, Mom, he’s like a brother to me.” I had a lot of fun thinking up ways that Headey, who plays the brother-loving Queen Cersei on Game of Thrones, could have responded to that.