We review The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones – Clumsy, derivative and generally just plain bad

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I really loved The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. You might be confused as to how that sentence matches up with that headline up yonder, and it’s simple: Ask just about any film critic and they will tell you that deep down, they love bad films. There are just very few things that can provide as much inspiration for a film review like a piece of celluloid effluent. And The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is very, very inspirational indeed.

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Since the mystifyingly popular Twilight books first got adapted for the big screens we’ve had a flood of YA adaptations about wishy-washy heroines trying to get a piece of that box office pie. The Hunger Games managed to not only grab a big ol’ record breaking bite for themselves, but also did something unexpected: It was actually a good film. Now along comes The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, adapted from the first of Cassandra Clare’s novels by writer Jessica Postigo Paquette and director Harald Zwart (The Karate Kid, One Night at McCool’s), also looking to make a splash. And it does. When it urinates all over itself.

Lily Collins (real life daughter of Phil Collins, spiritual successor to Eugene Levy and his eyebrows) plays the silly-named Clary Fray, par for the course teenage tabula rasa with a best friend, Simon (Robert Sheehan), who wants to be more than best friends, and a mother (Lena Headey) who knows something about all the mysterious symbols that Clary suddenly starts seeing everywhere when nobody else can. Well, that’s when she’s not too busy witnessing a bunch of tattooed, half-angel, Matrix rejects known as Shadowhunters, led by (apparently) alluring, hatchet faced Jayce (Jamie Campbell Bower) – who knows something about the mysteries in Clary’s life – killing a man while seemingly invisible, and this is where I stop caring about the story enough to go on. And you should too, because trust me, you already know this joke.

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Virtually every single idea to be found in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones was pilfered from just about every other major piece of YA fantasy and pop culture of the last couple of decades. And they don’t even care if those were bad ideas to begin with – they’re equal opportunity plagiarists – so instead of just being a case of “Been there, done that”, it ends up being “Been there, done that and I was really hoping and praying that I would never have to be here, doing this ever again”. Everything from Twilight to Stargate gets ripped off here, and that wouldn’t be so bad if a) The cast was able to carry the material, and b) Zwart even had vaguest inkling of what a coherent film looks like.

Instead, with the sole exception of Lena Headey providing the latest badass performance in a career filled with them, we get treated to the thespian equivalent of pieces of wood dressed in wigs, being tossed into a blender with every single cliche you can think of, and them mixed together until the resulting slurry forms a tarry consistency that cloyingly sucks at your will to live as you sit through it’s 140-minute running time.

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Characters drift in and out of the story with very little in the way of purpose, virtually all the actors sleepwalk through their roles (even Jared Harris, who is clearly just here to collect a paycheck), those very few plot revelations about the film’s central conceit – the Shadowhunters – end up being unintentionally funny (you’ll never look at classical music the same again), narrative beats are often confusingly introduced and then even more confusingly result in nothing but logical dead ends, and a lot of people simply do a whole lot of really dumb stuff (Pro tip: When the demons trying to tear your brainstem out your arsehole are frozen in place with a magic spell, you kill them immediately and swiftly, instead of going to stand behind them, waiting on them to unfreeze, yelling a battle cry and then dying horribly as they turn around and promptly resume aforementioned organ rearrangement).

Despite the overwhelming terribleness of the film, there are couple of tiny notches in the plus column though. There’s some nice eye candy on display here courtesy of a number of great visual effects (I especially liked the nightmarish vision of the John Carpenter-esque demon dogs), and there are couple of fights that feature some unexpectedly respectable action choreography. The film also features a very game Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as the film’s villain, Valentine Morgenstern (apparently characters are named using CAPTCHA), who chews scenery like somebody lathered the walls in Mrs Balls best (he is only slightly upstaged in scene-stealing ability by his conundrum of a hairstyle, which looks somebody started to give him dreadlocks and then changed their mind after about 3 minutes).

These paltry few plusses are simply not enough though. I would call this a messy, trainwreck of a film, but I’m afraid that I might receive some sternly worded letters from real life messy trainwrecks that take offence at the comparison.

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Last Updated: September 10, 2013

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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