Sep 18, 2020
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013)
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013) is an adaptation of the first book in a young adult series by a former fanfic writer calling herself “Cassandra Clare”. It tells the tale of… well, I’m not entirely sure what this movie is about, really, other than trying desperately to be the next Twilight.
Mortal Instruments takes place in New York and focuses on Lily Collins as a teenager named Clary (yes, “Clary”, while the author’s name is “Clare”—told you she was a fanfic writer). At the start of the film, Clary is trying to figure out why she keeps drawing the same strange symbol over and over.
Like most teens, she avoids talking to her mother (Lena Headey) about this, and in classic mother-daughter form, her mother already knows she’s drawing the symbol and totally avoids directly talking to her about it as well. Instead, Mom discusses it with her boyfriend Luke, and they both agree it’s a huge sign of impending trouble. Naturally, they don’t actually do anything about this.
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Clary goes out one night with Simon (Robert Sheehan), her Hollywood-nerdy/friend-zoned companion, and they come across a club with a sign that features the same symbol she’s been drawing. Except, no one else sees the symbol but her. Then a guy with bright blue eyes comes along and overhears this and gets her into the club.
Minutes later, the guy is killed in front of her, and the main culprit is a brooding guy in a hoodie with pouty lips (Jaime Campbell Bower) who will obviously be the movie’s main love interest. Much to her surprise, Clary is the only one who sees this go down, but instead of say, calling the cops to report a murder, she decides to just go home.
The next day while Clary is out, her apartment is invaded by two large men and their demonic-looking dog, who demand that Clary’s mom give them the “Mortal Cup”, which turns out to be sort of like the Holy Grail, I think, and is apparently one of the titular Mortal Instruments.
Meanwhile, the brooding guy who murdered the man at the nightclub has been following Clary around town. But no one else can see him, leaving Clary looking like she’s talking to the empty air. She demands an explanation for what she saw, and according to him, the guy he killed was actually a demon. Oh, okay, that makes it totally cool, then.
Clary then gets a call from her mom, still under attack from the intruders. She warns her daughter not to come home, and mentions how a guy named “Valentine” found her, and then drinks a potion that makes her fall into a coma.
Clary runs home to find the place ransacked. Her mom and the men are gone, but they left behind their dog, which transforms into a grotesque creature that tries to kill her. She’s eventually saved by the mysterious invisible man from the club who finally introduces himself as a “shadow hunter” named Jace Wayland.
According to him, shadow hunters are humans with angelic qualities, who are all covered in tattoos of symbols just like the one Clary keeps drawing. He tells Clary that her mom is a shadow hunter too, and so is Clary, which is why she can see things other people can’t.
Jace then brings her and Simon to the Institute, which is basically shadow hunter headquarters. Here, she’s allowed to roam around freely and check out the artifacts that apparently belonged to her ancestors, then she meets with Hodge (Jared Harris), the pseudo-boss of the shadow hunters who unloads a big infodump on her about what the Mortal Cup is.
Essentially, anyone who drinks from it becomes a shadow hunter, and an evil shadow hunter named Valentine Morgenstern (Johnathon Rhys-Meyers) wanted to use it for nefarious purposes, so Clary’s mom (his wife at the time) hid it from him.
Hodge sends Clary to a place called the City of Bones, where all the shadow hunters are buried, with the walls constructed out of their bones. And despite this being the source of the title, I think the movie only spends about ten minutes in this place, tops. Here, they search her memory, because apparently she knows where her mom hid the Mortal Cup, but her mom presumably cast a spell to make her forget.
This doesn’t help with her memories, but it does lead them to the head warlock in the city, Magnus Bane, who’s apparently fond of wearing hot pants and lots of eyeliner. They crash the rave that Bane is throwing, and when they finally meet the guy, he unloads another big infodump on us.
While Clary is getting the 411 on the blank areas of her life, Simon manages to get kidnapped by vampires. Yes, there are vampires in this movie, and I don’t think that was explained before this scene. The shadow hunter group immediately goes off to rescue Simon, in a big fight scene against vampires which takes up all of five minutes and has nothing to do with the rest of the plot.
Once back at the Institute, emotions and hormones run high as the group bicker over their feelings about each other, and as in all movies based on YA franchises, we get a love triangle where Clary falls in love with Jace but Simon has been in love with Clary for years. On top of that, there’s the suggestion that another shadow hunter named Alec (Kevin Zegers) is gay and might also be in love with Jace. And I suppose we should commend a film aimed at young people for having the courage to include a gay character. Compared to the Twilight movies, this is shockingly progressive, even though nothing ever comes of it.
Clary researches her ancestry some more, and discovers she has the ability to hide and retrieve items in paper. As in, she can just reach inside a book and pull out a drawing which then becomes a real object. She suddenly realizes the Mortal Cup is hidden inside of a tarot card drawn by her mother, which was given to her downstairs neighbor played by CCH Pounder. Clary is able to reach inside the card and pull out the cup, but of course nothing is that simple, and it turns out their neighbor is really a demon who gives them a pretty good run for their money.
Despite all this, they manage to get back to the Institute and Clary merrily hands over the cup to Hodge. Hodge then turns around and summons the evil Valentine through this watery portal thing we were shown earlier. Valentine takes the cup and reveals that, to no one’s surprise, he’s really Clary’s father. Also, he’s holding her mom captive and has her floating in stasis inside the portal.
Valentine plans to use the Mortal Cup to create a super-race of stronger shadow hunters. He then summons a flock of bat-like demons to defend himself from all the other shadow hunters, who never actually show up.
Clary jumps into the portal, which we were told earlier would just take her to “limbo” without proper training. Instead, it seems to take her across town, where she meets up with her mom’s boyfriend Luke, who drops more exposition on her. The gist of this infodump is that she has a brother she never knew about. Also, Luke is a werewolf. Yes, in addition to vampires, we get werewolves. If the source novel didn’t start out as Twilight fanfic, I’ll drop dead of shock.
Meanwhile, Valentine confronts Jace, and reveals that he’s also Jace’s father. Hilariously, he convinces Jace of this by taking his “W” ring and turning it upside down, thus “proving” his name is Jace Morgenstern, not Jace Wayland. So, let me see if I have this straight: the villain is secretly the hero’s father, and the two main lovebirds are secret siblings? Why does this sound so familiar?
Eventually, Luke calls up all his werewolf buddies to go take down Valentine. But they’re soon cornered by demons and the situation looks dire. So Clary uses some kind of magic wand-thing to draw a heretofore unknown symbol on her hand, which somehow defeats all the demons.
Clary is really upset to find out that she and Jace are siblings, because apparently the guy she met a week ago is her one true love. But good news! It turns out that Valentine is lying. I think. And so they manage to shove Valentine into the portal and magically freeze him inside. The movie ends on an awkward note as Jace and Clary discuss their future and Clary’s mother remains comatose in the hospital.
This movie is crammed full of exposition. So, so much exposition. The original novel is nearly 600 pages long, and it appears they tried to squeeze every last bit of it into one movie. There’s no chance you’ll get involved in the story when it stops for a flashback break roughly every 15 minutes.
And the story itself seems to be made up entirely of recycled elements from every big name sci-fi/genre movie imaginable. The Twilight references are all pretty obvious, of course, and although it ends up being a lie, Clary and Jace being told they’re siblings is pretty similar to a little movie called Star Wars. And how about that watery portal thing that looks like they reused a set from Stargate?
But what really makes the movie unbearable is the love triangle that seems to be a required element of all teen fantasy movies now. And here, the love triangle isn’t even a triangle—it’s more like this weird hexagonal shape: You get the classic unrequited best friend love between Simon and Clary. Then there’s the might-be-incest love between Clary and Jace. And then there’s the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name between Alec and Jace. Also, the movie seems like it might be setting it up so Simon ends up with Alec’s sister Isabelle (Jemima West) in the (very unlikely) sequel. It’s more exhausting then high school.
For all the grief Bella Swan gets for being a passive, boring lead character, Clary might be even more dumb and useless. She has so many face-palm moments that you start to wonder if the angel blood she gets force fed might have caused some serious brain damage. There’s of course the scene where she sees a guy murdered and does nothing about it. Then there’s the part where she pulls out the coveted Mortal Cup right in front of someone who’s clearly having some major demonic twitching issues. But worst of all is the scene where she hands over the cup to a guy who then causes a full-on demon invasion.
Perhaps the failure of movies like this, The Host, and Beautiful Creatures means the never-ending quest to find the next Twilight will end sooner rather than later. Part of the problem seems to be that Twilight made megabucks while being extremely faithful to the terrible source material. And so all these other films are intent on doing the same thing without realizing that Twilight was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, and in the case of this movie, some serious pruning of the exposition and streamlining of all the plot complications might have gone a long way towards making it watchable.
As it is, Mortal Instruments is probably a great movie to put on if you’re hosting a slumber party for pre-teen girls, but if you’re looking to be entertained for two hours then you should probably skip it. After all, you’ve seen all of this done before, just in better movies, so why not rent those instead?
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]