The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is the laugh-out-loud comedy of 2013. It’s a laugh riot! Barrels of laughs! Your sides will split from all the laught- wait. No? This film was not intended to be a comedy? Then why is it so funny? Oh – because it’s bad? Oh. Oh.
The source material isn’t bad (for a certain definition of “bad”, anyway): It’s based on Cassandra Clare’s books of the same name, a series that has now become rather terrible but started off as an entertaining mash-up of Twilight and Buffy and Harry Potter. (Clare’s work is so shamelessly cobbled together – some would say plagiarised – from other writers that she’s even derivative of herself. The Mortal Instruments is basically the skin of a Potter fanfic she wrote stretched over a different mythology.) I’ve been reading those books for a while now, and I was for-reals looking forward to the cinema adaptation. So it’s too bad the movie is… pee-yew.
(I kind of suspected this from the absence of any pre-release buzz, but any hopes I had that it’d somehow blossom into a genuinely good movie were dashed when, a week ahead of the preview screening, the film’s distributor demanded that reviews be embargoed till the day of release. Film distributors: Never do this. You might as well announce, “Hey, this film we’ve spent lots of time and money on stinks worse than that time you trod dog poo through the house that hot summer day when you were 11.” If your movie is a turd, bribe everyone who previews it with a free glass of champagne or something.)
Bones‘s story follows a standard YA fantasy arc: [Name of protagonist] is an ordinary teenager who discovers she’s actually a [race of fantasy beings], which gives her special powers she must use to save the world. As she battles [list of fantasy creatures], she becomes caught in a love triangle between [name of bad boy] and [name of boy next door]. (Here’s your answer key: Clary; Shadowhunters, the offspring of humans and angels; demons, vampires and werewolves; Jace; Simon.)
The formulaic plot is fine. I have nothing against formulas (if they’re executed well), and in Bones‘s credit it doesn’t waste time over-explaining its premise before it cuts to the action. The special effects and the costumes are fine – to paraphrase Clary, kind of, Shadowhunters more or less dress like goth hookers with leather fetishes. The problem is the script. (The script! It’s always the script!) IMDb tells me the screenplay is by “Jessica Postigo” who is: either a composite of 12 people who all added to and subtracted from the script at random without telling each other what they were up to; OR, extremely clumsy and on the way to delivering the final draft of her screenplay she dropped all her pages and didn’t have time to make sure they were all in the correct order.
The story is basically incoherent. The characters seem to make decisions based on logic that isn’t apparent to the audience. Early on, Clary (Lily Collins) follows Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) to the headquarters of a Shadowhunter sect to have a block on her memory lifted, without really saying why they’re going there. Jace’s Shadowhunter sidekick Alec (Kevin Zegers, who never stops looking uncomfortable) meets Clary and immediately hisses that she should stay away from Jace – via some extraordinarily clumsy dubbing, by the way – before he has a solid reason to hate her. And Isabelle (Jemima West) strides onscreen without any explanation how she relates to the other characters, or even an introduction. Seriously – I can’t recall her actually being named in the whole movie. (She’s Alec’s Shadowhunter sister, by the way. You’re welcome.)
All that stuff is merely bad, but like Twilight before it*, City of Bones is full of scenes that are so tremendously bad they’re almost good. (Almost.) I thought there was no way the movie could out-do the eye-rollingly bad scene where villainous rogue Shadowhunter Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) reveals Jace’s true identity to him by turning the “W” on his family ring upside-down to an “M”. But then came the super-earnest total misfire right at the end where Jace tells Clary that he’d never seen an angel… until he met her. Blech. That made people at my screening actually groan, or laugh, or both. Lots of people.
(*I maintain that the first Twilight movie is genuinely entertaining – that sparkling vampire scene? Yes.)
Misfits‘ Robert Sheehan is a standout as the permanently-friendzoned-by-Clary Simon, and Lena Headey demonstrates she can do more than just Cersei Lannister playing Clary’s mother Jocelyn, who’s hidden her daughter’s Shadowhunter heritage from her. As Clary, Collins is… fine. She’s fine. She does a perfectly fine job. And I wasn’t even that distracted by her eyebrows this time around, so I guess she’s evolving as an actress.
Some of the casting is not so strong. The thin, androgynous Bower rarely looks like a convincing badass. (He does do a standing flip in one scene, so there’s that.) Scenery-chewing Myers looks way too young for Valentine – curse his baby face! – even though he is, at 36, technically old enough to be playing Clary’s dad. (Oh, yeah. Spoiler alert, I guess – but like you couldn’t have predicted that particular Star Wars trope would be recycled here.) The noticeably weak link is Godfrey Gao as Magnus Bane, the (inexplicably pantsless) high warlock of Brooklyn. Gao is… really handsome? Is really the only favourable thing I can say about him? I don’t want to sound like one of those obnoxious people who complain the movie isn’t exactly the same as a book, but Magnus should be this wily, sexy, catlike guy – not a tree stump that’s been carved into an Abercrombie model.
City of Bones is pitched as a successor to Harry Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games. It’s not going to be. Nope, nope, nope. There’s reportedly a sequel in preproduction already, but don’t be too surprised if it mysteriously sinks and is never heard from again. Bones‘s legacy is less likely to be “start of the next big cinema franchise” and more “that terrible movie you make fun of with your friends when you’re all kind of drunk.”