Being a teenager is scary enough in a city as impersonal as New York. All kinds of weirdos patrol the streets at night, and dilapidated buildings hold a variety of horrors. But instead of junkies and pickpockets, in The Mortal Instruments the real urban blight comes from vampires, werewolves, and demons. This is more than just a Twilight knockoff, though– The Mortal Instruments is well-crafted introduction to a mysterious alternative reality.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is the first movie out of a six-part series of books, with more sequels planned for next year. It follows a seemingly-ordinary teenager, Clary Fray, as she finds herself caught up in a war within a group of mystical badasses called Shadowhunters. The Shadowhunters have a long history of protecting “mundanes”, the ordinary folk, through uneasy alliances with vampires and werewolves.
Clary’s introduction to the world of Shadowhunters takes up the first half of the movie, and it’s genuinely suspenseful. She’s plagued with visions of a mysterious symbol, which her mother seems concerned about. After attending a poetry slam with her platonic friend Simon, she steps into a nightclub (without being carded), and witnesses a ritual slaying amongst the fog machines and dancing crowds.
The next day, while Clary is out of the apartment, two scary thugs show up with a Rottweiler to track down a missing artifact. This turns out to be the Mortal Cup, a Grail-like object that once held the blood of the angel Raziel, and has the power to make more Shadowhunters. The thugs abduct Clary’s mom, and when Clary returns home, she has to face down a hellhound with nasty tentacles and a split-open face right out of John Carpenter’s The Thing.
From here, the special effects start to pile up, but they’re sparingly used and surprisingly well-done. The CG doesn’t seem obvious because of the film’s slightly muted palette, and Clary’s terror at the sudden violence in her life feels genuine. It isn’t long before she’s introduced to humanity’s protectors: Jace, a “die-blonde wannabe goth hero”, Alec and Isabelle, two demon-slaying siblings, and Hodge, a dignified scholar of the dark arts played by Mad Men’s Jared Harris.
The Shadowhunters have taken up residence in The Institute, a huge gothic cathedral that’s invisible to mundane New Yorkers. They learn that Clary’s mind has been blocked, and that within she holds a number of useful secrets and spells. The Shadowhunters then have to learn what they can about the attack on Clary’s mom, find the Mortal Cup, and prevent a rogue Shadowhunter named Valentine from destroying their order.
Clary’s journey from ordinary teenager to rune-scribbling sorceress is interesting, but the second half of the movie starts to drag with an awkwardly forced romance, teenage jealousy, and more than a few uncomfortable revelations. The film does an admirable job of setting up surprising payoffs later on, by bringing back supporting characters from Clary’s mundane life with new insights into their supernatural abilities.
The action sequences in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones range from well-shot sword fights to blurry scenes that obscure much of the action. One giant melee in the dining room of a run-down hotel has a number of circus-like tumbles and flips, but that’s about it. Later fights against burning ember demons are more carefully choreographed, and look a lot better onscreen.
Even though it has several painfully awkward moments towards the end of the movie, City of Bones feels uniquely engaging. It will no doubt inspire a generation to wear black and draw runes on their hands with ballpoint pens. Even though it’s part of a lengthy series, City of Bones reaches a satisfying conclusion on its own.
From this first film, The Mortal Instruments unfolds like a PG-13 version of Underworld or Blade. It’s heavy on the combat and stylish outfits, but it’ll also appeal to the blood-averse fans of Twilight and Harry Potter. With its decent action and surprising twists, this is a film that’s anything but mundane.
Score: 3 out of 4