Aug. 26, 2013. “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” gets off on the wrong foot with its terrible title. It’s bad enough when sequels have that annoying colon, but “The Mortal Instruments” is not yet a series, so there’s no need for this film to differentiate itself from other films. It would be like presumptively putting a “1” at the end of a title; it might make sense down the line if the film spawns sequels, but we don’t know that yet. What if this film bombs and they don’t make any sequels? Then you’re just left with an awkward title with a superfluous subhead. After “City of Bones,” I’m certainly not wishing to see any more of “The Mortal Instruments.”
Clary Fray (Lily Collins) is an average teenager who loves mostly with her mildly overprotective mother (Lena Headey). One day Clary unwittingly draws a mysterious symbol and strange things start happening. She sees more of the symbol, she gets into a club that shouldn’t admit her, and she thinks she sees a murder. Soon, her mother goes missing and she has to fight off a demonic dog. She’s desperate for answers, so she asks the nice young man who committed the murder. His name is Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) and he tells her that she, like him, is a Shadowhunter: a mostly immortal race bred to fight demons.
Other Shadowhunters include Alec (Kevin Zegers) who doesn’t like Clary, Isabelle (Jemima West), who is fairly supportive, and Hodge (Jared Harris), the wizened mentor who for centuries has been protecting a secret that he reveals in his second scene. We get hit with a lot of details about the history and practices of Shadowhunters, but so little of it matters. What really matters is whether Clary will hook up with dangerous stranger Jace or if she’ll stay with her safe friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) who wants to be more than friends. She makes an impulsive choice that results in an overblown make-out scene followed by a ridiculous turn of demeanor that makes no sense and only serves to create conflict. After some chasing, fighting and other Shadowhunter shenanigans, one of the suitors is disqualified so the decision is pretty much made for her.
I understand the “The Mortal Instruments” is a series of books, which probably explains (but does not excuse) the film’s convoluted title. Because the main character is a teenage girl in a love triangle, the film is sure to be labeled a “Twilight” knockoff. But to do so is to ignore the fact that the film is also a “Harry Potter” knockoff. I’m not just talking about the way the main character suddenly finds out she had magic in her blood or that the magical characters have a word for non-magical people (they say “Mundanes” but we all know they mean Muggles). I mean that the movie touches on a lot of characters and details that fans of the books probably demanded, but don’t translate well into film. For example. for the climactic battle, the characters get help from werewolves. Maybe in the book the werewolves were richly detailed or they prove crucial to the story, but when I see them on screen, all I’m thinking is, “Okay, now we have werewolves. I thought this movie didn’t want us thinking of it as a ‘Twilight’ knockoff.”
It’s hard to watch “The Moral Instruments: City of Bones” and not think about how it’s trying to start a franchise. We’re meeting characters that we’re supposed to befriend and follow for who knows how many more films. These characters are so charmless that even “Twilight’s” biggest detractors will be wishing for Bella, Edward and Jacob. As the film opened in third place this weekend below two holdovers (“Lee Daniels’ the Butler” and “We’re the Millers”), I don’t see “The Mortal Instruments” going beyond “City of Bones.”