THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES: I Cried That Night and I Haven’t Cried Since

Mortal Instruments City of Bones

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013) – Directed by Harald Zwart – Starring Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheehan, Kevin Zegers, Jemima West, Godfrey Gao, Lena Headey, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Aidan Turner, Kevin Durand, and Jared Harris.

Almost.

I almost bought into this movie.

THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES is so close to being a movie I actually like that I ended up disappointed at not being able to fully embrace it. That’s actually high praise for a movie I had zero hopes for and even less interest in watching. In fact, if I didn’t love Mirror Mirror so much, I would never have bothered with yet another YA “romance in dark places” movie. I watched the first Twilight film and though I was impressed by the cinematographic slickness, the story was so dumb and the romance angle so pathetic, I’ve never been back. I couldn’t even make it to the half-hour mark of The Host. I feel like I’ve already seen Divergent five times and all I’ve done is watch the trailer. When we’ve got The Hunger Games and Catching Fire lapping the field in terms of quality, these films in the Suzanne Collins/Jennifer Lawrence shadow have a long road to respectability.

I remember seeing the trailer for MORTAL INSTRUMENTS in the theater and laughing at how bad it all looked, but since then I’ve seen Mirror Mirror and was so impressed by Lily Collins’ performance that I wanted to see how she did in a film that looked like complete junk. The good news is that she’s real good, and gives Clary (and the entire film) a a grounded humanity it desperately needs. Except … Collins makes Clary almost too human, too well-rounded, that I did not, for a single second, believe that this girl was going to fall in love with someone (anyone) in about five minutes after watching him murder someone, even if he did then save her from a monstrous dog that attacked her by spitting its own insides at her.

CITY OF BONES is a good reason why I love movies so much. I had zero interest, then was hooked by the film’s opening sequences, then nearly fell off the couch at how bad it got, then was brought back in, then wondered if the final action sequence was ever going to end, and then was curious to see if it did well enough at the box office to get a sequel. (It didn’t. But it’s getting a sequel anyways, apparently. Somewhere, John Carter is weeping Martian tears.) I ended up being both thankful that the movie impressed me in places and frustrated at the things it did wrong.

In the end, I can’t say that CITY OF BONES is a good movie, but I can say it’s an almost good movie, and if they put out a Director’s Cut where they shaved a good twenty minutes from the film and nuked the completely insipid romance angle, it might actually turn out to be a movie I did like.

But I can’t embrace this movie. Not all of it. Not enough of it.

Almost just isn’t good enough.

Clary Fray (Lily Collins) sees a man get murdered that she isn’t supposed to see. Not because the killers didn’t want any witnesses but because the killers didn’t think it was possible for anyone to see them. Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) and his pals are Shadowhunters and they are fond of marking up their skin with runes that give them powers, like being invisible to Muggles – I mean, Mundanes. Clary panics at the sight of the murder, then again when she wakes up to discover she’s been drawing a particular design in her sleep, and then again when she sees Jace in a coffee shop.

Then again when she runs home to find her mother missing.

There’s a lot of freaking out in the early stages of CITY OF BONES and while it’s a bit annoying, it’s also totally believable. Clary is clearly a smart and resourceful almost adult (as she proves when she gets attacked by a demon dog and burns him alive). She goes to watch one friend be terrible at poetry and then convinces another one to go to a club with her. Clary is self-aware enough to know she can use her looks to get into the club, but not so self-aware (maybe purposely so) that she doesn’t realize her best friend, Simon (Robert Sheehan) is in love with her, even when he passes on talking up a cute blonde during poetry because he’s “saving himself for someone else.”

Yes, CITY OF BONES is the kind of movie where characters actually say things like, “I’m saving myself for someone else” and “You won’t believe me if I told you.” The biggest fault with this film is the mind-glowingly bad dialogue, especially when it’s paired with the staggeringly bad romance angle.

Look, I’m not a guy that hates romance (I dug Warm Bodies and Titanic and Beauty and the Beast and WrestleMania VII) but I do hate stupid romantic plots that come off like they were written by a thirteen-year old girl after her first break-up drives her into a make-out session with a poster on her wall. When Clary and Jace finally have their big kiss moment, they say things to one another that a Hallmark card would commit seppuku over in order to save the world from having to experience them. (From Jace, after telling a story of his father killing a trained hawk: “I cried that night and I haven’t cried since.” Because, you know, he’s dark and broody. Except he isn’t. Jace is a much better character when he’s Season 5 Spike and not Season 6 Spike.) And when the film rolls in a “they’re really siblings!” swerve, the Hallmark could would tape itself back together just so it could off itself a second time.

It’s so painful to watch two decent actors and, to that point, largely two interesting characters become unraveled as they approach the revelation of their emotions. Yeah, love can make you say stupid things (believe me, I’m not immune …) but Clary and Jace do not express love to one another as much as they express the idea of what a broken-hearted thirteen-year old thinks love should be. It’s maddening. I was just realizing that I was pleasantly surprised how much I was enjoying this film when Jace gets all pouty faced at Clary hopping next to a bed-ridden Simon, and then takes her to a greenhouse inside the Shadowhunters’ secret mansion so they can suck face, and then gets all mad when Simon catches them together OUTSIDE SIMON’S DOOR, and then wails about how Clary means nothing to him as stomps and pouts away to cut runes into himself.

CITY OF BONES lost me there.

When the film sticks with the supernatural, I find it to be rather watchable. Yeah, you can certainly play, “Guess the Source” of every scene, as the world of MORTAL INSTRUMENTS is certainly going to remind you of other films and books, but if that scene reminds you Underworld and this scene reminds you of Buffy, that’s not the end of the world. There’s too many scenes that are effectively nothing more than infodumps (Clary has the “truth” about herself and her past given to her at least four different times), but the sets look good and the fight scenes are competent.

The film puts so much of this load onto Clary’s shoulders that it takes a strong actress to keep everything centered. Not even Collins can save the dopey, melodramatic dialogue in the romance scenes, but she does excellent work making Clary feel both competent and overwhelmed, depending on the situation.

One element of the film that really works for me is the humor. I wish there were more of it. The film desperately needs more moments of release from the emotional bludgeoning it delivers. Clary has to deal with the kidnapping of her mom, the revelation she’s part of this secret world of monsters, falling in love with a guy who kills things for a living, shutting down her best friend’s “I have always loved you,” dealing with her father being this world’s Big Bad, dealing with her father figure saying he’s spent her whole life using her, figuring out she can do magic, and just generally dealing with two guys who demonstrate their love for her by acting like two five-year olds mad because they can’t have a cookie before dinner.

That’s a lot to put on anyone’s shoulders and I found myself really taking to the brief moments of humor to keep the film from falling into Twilight-esque mopey suffering.

Some of these moments are genuinely funny, too, as when Clary gets a new wardrobe from the one female Shadowhunter, Isabelle (Jemima West), and complains about how tight her clothes are. (Which is kinda silly since Isabelle is bigger physically and so her clothes should fit Clary looser, not tighter, but whatevs.) To get Clary to shut up, Isabelle reminds her these clothes are needed so they can find her mom, to which Clary replies, “How is dressing like a hooker going to help me find my mom?”

When Jace and Simon fight over the authenticity of cops: Simon thinks they are, and Jace knows they’re demons, so he kills them. If they weren’t cops, Simon wants to know, “How did they get a police car?”

And in the funniest line in the movie, Clary gets in a truck with Luke (Aidan Turner) her mom’s friend who happens to be a werewolf. Luke is the guy who said harsh words about Clary while he was being tortured to try to convince the bad guys he didn’t know where the film’s MacGuffin was located, but now he’s convinced Clary those were lies. (There are a lot of lie in this movie.) By way of showing him things are cool and she knows what he is, Clary tells him, “Go ahead, you can stick your head out the window,” to which Luke grumbles, “I’m a werewolf, not a golden retriever.”

Good stuff. I wish there had been more moments like this because CITY OF BONES is a long-ass movie. I felt every one of the film’s 130 minutes and but the time Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) shows up, I was definitely hitting my remote’s “Display” button to see how much longer the film was going to run. I also wish there had been more moments like that because it would have been a proper use of Lily Collins’ natural likability. I wish the filmmakers had been willing to adjust their script during production to take advantage of these abilities.

Collins is certainly a beautiful young woman, but in Hollywood that will be lucky to get you the part of Background Character #4 in whatever teen drama the CW is pumping out these days. (Given how dense this story is, and how many emotional ups and downs the characters are forced to go through, THE MORTAL BONES would have been much better off being adapted as a CW drama than as a movie.) Collins’ appeal isn’t her attractiveness, however, but her ability to make her characters feel like real people; with her characters you have to pay attention not just to what’s taking place on the surface, but also just behind the obvious. She’s an actress that sells quiet reveals (like with Luke in the truck) better than emotional fireworks.

THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES never quite sustains a level of watchability equal to its star, and while it never equals the dramatic heights of The Hunger Games, it’s a clear step above the overblown, melodramatic dreariness of Twilight.

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