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I may not be the target audience for young adult film adaptation The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones but I was willing to give it a fair shake. A lot of critics trash YA films like Twilight based on their subject matter alone, as the genre is an easy target for disdain. That said, this adaptation of Cassandra Clare's novel is a weak film, marred by genre clichés and a convoluted narrative. Director Harald Zwart (The Karate Kid remake) throws everything but the kitchen sink at the screen in hopes that something sticks. There are witches and vampires and star-crossed lovers and secret societies. The plot concerns a group of warriors that kills demons on earth, but the City of Bones referenced in the film's title feels like an afterthought. The film at first seems intriguing but quickly derails into a messy, nonsensical adventure that does little to distinguish itself from the most mediocre entries in the YA fantasy genre.
New York City teen Clary Fray (Lily Collins) begins seeing odd symbols everywhere. When her mother, Jocelyn (Lena Headey), finds out, she worries that a long-buried secret about her past will be revealed to her unwitting daughter. Clary and her buddy Simon Lewis (Robert Sheehan) later witness what appears to be a murder at a nightclub but are intercepted by Shadowhunter Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower). Jace tells Clary that he is part of a society of hunters that slays demons hiding on Earth. Two such demons kidnap Jocelyn, and Clary turns to Jace to help find her mom. The demons are after the Mortal Cup, which Jocelyn hid, because it has the ability to give Shadowhunters their power. Or something like that. It's kind of unclear.
Young adult fantasy series are all the rage these days. There's Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" and Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight." The biggest series is J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" phenomenon, and Veronica Roth's "Divergent" novels are gaining traction. Clare's "The Mortal Instruments" series is not quite as popular as the others but is sitting at five novels and counting. Unfortunately, the film adaptation is middling and feels like a network TV production when compared with more successful YA films. The cast fits the bill for this genre: young, good looking and wistful. I wish Headey had more screen time in the film, as she grounds the opening scenes and teases at a better movie that never materializes. The production values and Zwart's direction are nothing special, but the film's confusing plot is its major downfall. I should not have to be familiar with the source material to understand what the hell is going on. City of Bones hops from one event to the next so quickly that it never bothers to explain the significance of major plot points, including the City of Bones where dead Shadowhunters are buried; why the Mortal Cup and other Mortal Instruments are so important; and what Jocelyn and Jonathan Rhys Meyers' Valentine Morgenstern have in common.
Genre clichés abound here, too, including the always-necessary love triangle. This one is between Clary, Jace and Simon. Clary treats Simon like a lapdog and constantly ignores him when Jace casts brooding stares her way. Stay tuned for the hilarious Return of the Jedi twist concerning said love triangle that comes out of left field late in the film. This romance is the sappy teen puppy dog type, but, again, I'm not the target audience. Rhys Meyers' role here is very underwritten, and the film tells rather than shows the audience why they should care. City of Bones is clearly banking on a sequel to further explore the story's mythology but I doubt one is coming.
By the time the film dragged to the close of its two hour plus running time, I was itching to move on with my life. The Mortal Instruments is poorly structured and ruins a truncated but decent set up with a draggy, convoluted midsection and an underwhelming finale. The cast doesn't exactly command attention, and the acting is mediocre across the board save Headey. The story suffers from the same rocky transition to film that plagues similar YA fantasies. Sometimes this tricky blend of fantasy and romance just doesn't play well on screen with mediocre talent involved. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones doesn't exactly make a convincing case to continue the franchise on the silver screen.
The 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is perfectly serviceable, with nice detail and texture. Colors are well saturated if not especially bold, and black levels are strong. Skin tones are normal, and a light layer of grain provides a film-like appearance. I noticed no issues with noise reduction, jagged edges or aliasing.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is good but not as aggressive as top-tier lossless mixes. Dialogue is appropriately spaced and mixed with effects and score. Ambient effects make use of the surrounds, and action-oriented effects are bold and crisp. The subwoofer is called upon from time to time, and the score is appropriately deep. English, English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc "combo pack" includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy of the film and a code to redeem an UltraViolet HD digital copy. The discs are packed into a Vortex case with dual-sided artwork and a slipcover. Character Lineage is a lightly interactive supplement about the bloodlines in the film. There are a few Deleted Scenes (5:17 total/HD); Into the Shadows: From Book to Screen (8:35/HD) is a basic page-to-film discussion; and Bringing Them to Life (6:39/HD) highlights the main characters. There's also Deadly Attraction (4:24/HD) about Clary and Jace; Descendants of the Cup (4:36/HD) about the Shadowhunters' fighting methods; and Entering the Shadow World (4:49/HD) about the digital effects used to create the fantasy sets. Finally, you get a Music Video for "Almost is Never Enough" by Ariana Grande featuring Nathan Sykes (3:44/HD).
It's a mess, folks. I'm not one to completely dismiss young adult fantasy films based on their content alone, but The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is a sloppy, uninteresting film ripe with genre clichés. The story is incomprehensible without reading the source novel and the production feels cheap. Fans of Cassandra Clare's books may want to rent this. Everyone else can Skip It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.