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Non-Review Review: The Mortal Instruments – City of Bones

The Mortal Instruments: The City of Bones is just about wry enough and smart enough to launch itself snugly into the gap in the “young adult” movie market left by the end of franchises like Twilight or Harry Potter. This franchise-launcher, based on Cassandra Clare’s 2007 novel, is at its best when it’s self-aware, with young starlet Lilly Collins reacting with quiet bemusement to the surreal urban fantasy or Irish supporting actor Robert Sheehan picking holes in the plot.

It’s over-the-top and deliciously campy, but indulgently so. Refusing to merely bask in the clichés of urban fantasy, The Mortal Instruments practically revels in them. Subtext becomes supra-text, twists are shrewdly signposted in a way welcoming to genre aficionados and there’s an endearing sense of pulp to the whole thing. The movie only really suffers when it tries to take things entirely seriously, slowing down for an almost interminable second act and casting the so-wooden-he-should-probably-be-varnished Jamie Campbell Bower as the obligatory “mysterious hunky teenager.”

A cut above?

A cut above?

There’s a delightful sense of self-awareness that runs through the film. The more notable elements include the absurdly Freudian vampire-killing-device (which looks like the product of prop department that decided stakes weren’t obvious enough) through to the way that the story renders the typical bromantic undertones and explicit plot points. Teenage literature has always had subtext and connotations – these are, after all, coming of age tales – and part of the charm of The Mortal Instruments is how completely candid it is about all this conflicting hormonal stuff.

To be fair, this saves the film from a lot of the problems associated with the Twilight franchise. Rather than repressing those aspects of the plot, burying them in such a way that it creates a fairly warped world view, The Mortal Instruments just lays it all out there. Clary is a teenager. She’s going through some changes. Her mother doesn’t want to face the fact that her daughter might be growing up. She starts staying out late, visiting strange nightclubs. Next thing you know, Clary has new motor-bike-reading sexy-clothes-wearing friends, foreign-looking tattoos (“runes”, to the cool kids) and has taken to wearing outfights so tight that they feel like “a second skin.”

Hair, hair!

Hair, hair!

Towards the end of the film, Clary confesses that her world has really changed. It’s so much more dangerous and exciting than it used to be. Her handsome new mysterious pseudo-boyfriend dude remarks, “It’s not the world that’s changed. It’s you.” She’s simply seeing things that she didn’t see when she was younger. Of course, for most teenagers, that doesn’t involve suddenly seeing demons and werewolves and vampires, but it’s a fairly standard metaphor for these sorts of films, and The Mortal Instruments lays its cards completely on the table.

However, what really works about The Mortal Instruments is the sense that the movie knows exactly what it is doing, and is enjoying the heightened absurdity of it all. After our handsome new mysterious pseudo-boyfriend dude kills two cops in the middle of the street, Clary’s friend Simon nearly has a nervous breakdown. The handsome new mysterious pseudo-boyfriend dude tells him to relax. They were simply demons, you see. “Where did they get the car?” Simon asks, voicing the concerns of the more cynical audience members. His question is never answered, but the film earns brownie points for acknowledging the plot hole before glossing over it.

Her bloody Valentine...

Her bloody Valentine…

(Of course, Simon promptly gets roofie’ed by vampires. Although he’s recovered, it’s clear that they’ve left their mark on him. In what seems like a sly acknowledgement of a certain other teenage fantasy romance, our best friend returns from the vampires seeming just a little bit more possessive of Clarys, feeling just a little bit more entitled to her affection, because – y’know – it just isn’t love if it isn’t possessive.)

The film rather shrewdly extends its influences outside the teen-lit genre, drawing rather heavily on Joseph-Campbell-by-way-of-George-Lucas. There’s a definite Star Wars vibe to the film, to the point where several of the movie’s twists – and, I suspect, several of the sequel’s twists – can be deduced just by familiarity with the genre. I won’t spoil those twists here, but it’s a very shrewd decision to make from the point-of-view of structuring the film. Lucas’ first three films were tightly-plotted pulpy throwbacks with a great sense of fun. At its best, The Mortal Instruments seems to appropriate that sense of fun, albeit aimed at the teenage audience.

Turn ons include long walks on the beach and staring at you through café windows...

Turn ons include long walks on the beach and staring at you through café windows…

The best parts of The Mortal Instruments bask in the delightfully heightened stakes of it all. Jared Harris is cast in the role of the adult authority figure in a school of gifted children. Harris excels in the art of delivering exposition while walking down impressive-looking staircases. Similarly, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays the villain of the piece in what might be the year’s campiest evil performance. Laying siege to the cathedral that our heroes use as a headquarters, they might not have worry about demons from hell swallowing their surroundings if Rhys-Meyers is allowed to chew the scenery much longer.

The film’s climax offers us the most creepily sexually-charged pseudo-family reunion in quite some time. “Valentine,” one character intones, so much pent-up frustration and repressed angst buried in three simple syllables. Their eyes lock. “Jonathan,” the other character replies. Rhys-Meyers leaps and jumps, and glowers and stares, and then presses his forehead close to that of his enemy for a bizarre moment of physical intimacy in a climactic confrontation.

Adopting an on-hands approach to demon-fighting...

Adopting an on-hands approach to demon-fighting…

It’s ridiculous, but it’s also endearingly confident and strangely charming. The Mortal Instruments has no real time for subtlety or nuance, because… well, we could be fighting werewolves or vampires or angst or Jonathan Rhys-Meyers right now, dammit! The movie plays up its heightened melodrama with a practised ease. It is what it is, and it refuses to be ashamed of that fact.

The only real problems with The Mortal Instruments become obvious when the movie slows down and starts playing into the teenage fantasy tropes with earnestness rather than self-awareness. While Robert Sheehan does good work as the token nerdy friend, Jamie Campbell Bower appears to have been signed up just to look pretty. (Which, mind you, he does very well – nothing says “teenage rebellion” like flowing locks, dark clothes and a killer motorcycle.)

They're night-clubbing, bright-light-clubbing...

They’re night-clubbing, bright-light-clubbing…

Bower is cast as the handsome stranger who welcomes our heroine to a bold new world, but he can’t seem to muster any enthusiasm for the task. As a result, the character feels like the most generic sort of teenage fantasy figure, a blank slate on to which a collection of clichés and tropes might be projected. (That’s not to suggest the surrounding characters are any deeper, just that the actors do a much better job playing into the surreality of the situation.) The romance between Clarys and this new figure falls flat, because it feels overly earnest and far too self-serious.

The film loses momentum during the whole “will-they-won’t-they?” dance towards the end of the second act, to the point where the audience starts to question the world that has been drawn in rather broad strokes. In a nice nod to multiculturalism, we’re assured that the demon hunters aren’t tethered to a particular religion. Their supplies are stored in temples and churches, etc. But what about the many global religions who don’t believe in demons?

A slice of life in the Big Apple?

A slice of life in the Big Apple?

Surely projecting Western religious values (angels and demons) on to all other denominations is a very cynical way of approaching diversity? It may have been more honest to anchor the story’s mythology in the Abrahamic religions, and to take that at face value. After if you are going to use such explicitly Western iconography – with our youthful crusaders seeking their own version of the Holy Grail – it can’t hurt to be candid about it.

Still, these minor bumps in the road aside, The Mortal Instruments is an impressive addition to the urban fantasy subgenre, and a rather solidly-constructed teenage fantasy adventure.

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4 Responses

  1. Spot on. I’ve been taking a lot of stick for liking this. Felt like a John Carpenter movie for teenage girls.

    • Personally, I’d be even cheekier and describe it as Star Wars for teenage girls. It borrows several obvious cues and plot points, but it’s also very clearly Campbell-ian in structure. Which I think helps a great deal.

  2. This by far is the worst thing that I have ever seen.The characters were not remotely portrayed in accordance with the book. Midway through the movie I walked out and got my money back. Stop making it seen like this is the new best movie, based on books, any teenager that takes the time to read the book will realize the horific portrayal of the real books.

    • Well, when doctors differ, patients die. We just disagree over films. I thought it was solid for what it was – a large melodramatic urban fantasy aimed squarely at teenage girls. I think it was better constructed than most films in the genre and that the technical skill in crafting a movie like this was above par for the genre. I’m not concerned with how it lines up with or diverges from the book. Did it entertain me? It did. And so I embrace the absurdity, the cheesiness, the audacity and illogicality.

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