By Mark Olsen
7:45 PM EDT, August 20, 2013
Many of Hollywood's recent adaptations of young adult fiction are confounding: They seem far more invested in the fantasy trappings and wonky internal mythology of their made-up universes than they are in the deeper metaphors of body shock, transformation and revelation. They are made as if their audiences actually care about vampires and werewolves, not the dark corners of the human psyche they represent.
"The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" is no exception. It's the first film adaptation from Cassandra Clare's series of novels, and the fact that there is already at least one sequel planned feels more like a threat than a treat.
Directed by Harald Zwart from a screenplay by Jessica Postigo Paquette, the story has a lot of ground to cover with a deep, albeit nonsensical, internal mythos that must be explained quickly. Right up to the last, the film is still setting things up.
The movie stars Lily Collins as Clary Fray, a young woman who comes across as something of the neoconservative delegate of recent young adult heroines. She complains that she is put into a dress that is too tight and too revealing, that her shoes are impractical and all the while she wants to get back to her mother. One of the first things she does upon discovering she has supernatural powers is use them for home renovation and redecorating.
Early in the film, Clary discovers she is not just a "mundane," a plain-old human, but rather a part of the world of "shadowhunters," a half-human, half-angel race that patrols our streets for vampires, werewolves and all manner of supernatural creations. Throughout the film, Clary discovers — Jason Bourne-style — that she possesses powers she never knew she had, often at the exact moment she needs them.
"City of Bones" goes so far as to explain how certain sets of musical tones can cause a demon to reveal their true form, and that no less than Johann Sebastian Bach was in fact a shadowhunter. In a rather hilarious set of shots, the camera looks closely at a portrait of Bach to reveal the faint points of tribal tattoos peeking out from his ruffled 18th century finery. (Brief piano excerpts heard in the film are played by director Zwart.)
The film is set in modern-day New York City, but there are no real connections to contemporary life, as even the cellphone service seems a fantasy, working after traveling though some sort of mystical dimensional portal. When a character is introduced as the "high warlock of Brooklyn," he does not appear, as one might expect, as someone with an interest in old-time haberdashery and do-it-yourself pickling techniques. Rather, he is the sort of internationalist jet-set glam that has long represented sybaritic impropriety, from "The Hunger" to "Blade."
After Clary and her cohorts survive a demon attack, the single most dramatic cliffhanger moment of the film occurs when she must decide in an instant whether to hug her longtime nice-guy friend or a bad-boy shadowhunter. The hug happens.
Collins has none of the gritty fortitude and self-possession of Kristen Stewart in the "Twilight" films or Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games," leaving her as little more than a young woman with extraordinarily luxuriant hair and her rather formidable brow line.
Lena Headey, a fearsome screen presence who always exudes a regal can't-touch-this-itude, such as in her role on "Game of Thrones," spends nearly the entire movie either offscreen or inert in some sort of frozen state. Though her character apparently has an expanded role in the future stories, here she's wasted and a constant reminder of how wimpy the play-acting kids all seem. Jared Harris and Jonathan Rhys Meyers likewise float through without much to do, while CCH Pounder provides unintentional comic relief when a tentacle emerges from her neck.
"The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" is just a sloppy rag bag of ideas cobbled from other stories. It's Bella and Edward until it's Luke and Leia and then maybe it's not. By then, audiences may have just thrown up their hands anyway, as the films reaches a noisy, cluttered climax that seems to wrap up nothing and simply turns the page to the next story. Chaste and passionless, the pre-fab franchise of "City of Bones" has crumbled long before it gets there.
'The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones'
MPAA ratings: PG-13 for intense sequences of fantasy violence and action, and some suggestive content
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: In wide release
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times