Review: 'The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones'

"The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" is an egregiously stupid film. Incoherent, juvenile and often non-sensical, this is a story that has everything you're looking for, provided that you're looking for absolutely nothing. But who is to blame?

Firstly, I'm loathe to blame the writing or script here, mostly because I refuse to believe "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" was written at all. The mostly likely scenario is that they enlisted 35 10th-grade classes, giving them each a few blank pieces of paper to work with, along with the basic framework of a scene. "In this scene the girl likes the boy," I can see them saying, or, "Here there is some action involving swords". From that point on, the plucky tenth-graders were off, writing for ten to fifteen minutes on how they could see a movie moment like that playing out.

These scenes were then collected and shot in movie form, which is why there seems to be no rhyme or reason to anything transpiring onscreen. This potpourri delivery mechanism is what left them with moments where main characters reference a conversation that never happened, or foreshadow a moment that never comes. Even the context for the subtitle, "City of Bones", is handled in the following idiotic manner: The two main characters head off on an adventure to recover some lost memories. One character takes the other into a graveyard, and then motions, with his hands, "This is the City of Bones". Then some unexplained monk-like beings attempt to help revive the character's forgotten moments. And that's it, that's the full accounting of "The City of Bones," a plot point so important that they mentioned it once, for five seconds, and then never brought it up again.

Of course, the acting could be another target for blame, only no one could have pulled off cheesiness on this level with a straight face. This is the sort of movie, amazingly, that makes you long for a "Twilight" marathon, so disjointed and poorly executed that the audience was often laughing along with parts that weren't even remotely intended to be funny. The plot, such as it is: Lily Collins, as Clary, discovers she's able to see things that normal people aren't, a bit like Haley Joel Osment in "The Sixth Sense," only she's seeing demons and Shadowhunters instead of dead people. Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) is himself a Shadowhunter, tasked with killing evil demons, and he's intrigued by Clary once he realizes her ability. However, their introduction is immediately wrong-footed, as on her birthday she attempts to get into a dance club, is denied, and then sees something a human can't, which causes a demon to intercede for her, thus allowing her access to the club, which is where Jace runs into her.

But wait, aren't demons the bad guys, and Jace one of the good guys, and so why would a demon help Clary out? Never fear, as this won't be explained, just as what Clary actually is will never be explained. It's alternatively posited that she's a mundane (human) with special powers, she's actually a Shadowhunter too, that she's the daughter of a traitor Shadowhunter, or possibly that she holds the key to everything. Or maybe she's pals with warlocks and werewolves but not vampires? "Aw, heck," thinks "Mortal Instruments: City of Bones", "perhaps if we keep throwing out theories and conflicting origin stories it will escape everyone's notice that we're not telling any story at all." A noble goal!

Alas, it is not to be, because in the end it's deadly apparent that the audience is leaving even less informed than they came in, the only thing lodged firmly in their memory being an incest subplot (because, sure, why not?). It's certainly possible that the popular book, also titled "Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" is marvelously written, full of depth and genius, and it's a shame that the movie wasn't able to translate any of that cleverness. Possible, yes, but credit can't be given for solid source material if none it shows up during the film itself.

Other scenes and subplots that defy all hope of making sense in this film include Clary's mother being unconscious, and a running gag (though the movie didn't mean for it to be one) about how Clary is trying to "save" her, though from where or what eludes the movie. Additionally, Clary's mom, Jocelyn, played by "Game of Thrones" stalwart Lena Headey, has a male companion, Luke (Aidan Turner), a character that jumps in and out of the narrative as "Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" looks around, desperately trying to stall for time. All of this feels like a movie you've missed the first 45 minutes of, there's no reference points or foundation with which to understand anyone's motivations or fears. At times Jace and Clary are falling in love, only 90 seconds later to come off as, "whatever," which very well may be indicative of the high school experience, but doesn't provide any clarity whatsoever as to what, or even whom, we're supposed to be rooting for.

At other moments, it would seem that Clary is the key to the propagation of future Shadowhunters, but this tact is largely abandoned midway through the film as well. Speaking of, are any of these people in school? What do they do for work? How many demons are there? Why are there demons? What do the vampires, witches, and werewolves have to do with anything? Why can humans occasionally see Jace, but not always? What does the sign Clary keeps fixating on mean? The questions keep piling up with each additional scene, though unfortunately "Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" seems massively content to point at Clary and Jace and say, "Lookit, those two are making out!" only to later throw out, "Yeah, but what if they are brother and sister?" It's as clumsy as someone with oil on their hands trying to catch an ice cube. "Bad" isn't the word, "terrible" is much closer to what we're talking about here.

What of the directing? Harald Zwart handled the recent "Karate Kid," which wasn't abysmal, though he's also responsible for "Pink Panther 2," which was. Based on the intended maturity of the content, which I can only surmise was of the tween "Twilight" and "Beautiful Creatures" variety (both of which are eminently watchable), it may have been that stepping up a level in weight class, from age nine to around fourteen, proved to be too much for Mr. Zwart. This effort can only be kindly described as "clunky," which, even without a script underneath the narrative, is no feather in a director's cap. If you can't win an audience with story, you have to do so with pacing and/or visuals, and "Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" certainly falls flat on its face in those categories as well.

Once the writing, acting, and directing are considered it becomes clear there's no primary villain to blame for "Mortal Instruments" - only not so innocent bystanders that took the check for subpar work. Really, everyone working in conjunction must have had a hand in the miserableness, for no one person could produce something this bland and boring. At over two hours, it feels around 18 hours long, which doesn't bode particularly well for sequel talk. That said, the first 30 minutes or so are tolerable, when everything is still a mystery, because it's also supposed to be the point where you're grasping to find plot footing. Past the hour marker, however, this turns into an exercise of diminishing returns, the only real mystery being why anyone would sit through the whole thing in the first place.

SCORE: 2.5 / 10

Laremy wrote the book on film criticism and adored "Beautiful Creatures" and "Twilight: New Moon".